The Silver Jews are often considered a Pavement side project, but the truth is that the Jews precede Pavement and, as Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea proves, deserve to be considered in their own light. David Berman, the only consistent member of the Jews through the years, half-croons, half-complains through ten tracks full of low- key, lo-fi indie folk rock pop that at once screams "country" (at least according to CDDB) and at the same time defies labels. Is Cash country? Sure, but he's also much bigger than that, and Berman is nothing if not big, like the omnipresent, omniscient Balladeer on The Dukes of Hazzard.
The comparison is inevitable - and well-deserved. Berman's world- weary deadpan drawl as dusty and gravelly as a back country road, and a near-miss on Johnny Cash (most notably on album opener, "What Is Not But Could Be If,") which is a good thing because near miss is about as close as anyone would want to come to the Man in Black. Even the album's final track, "We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing," seems like the flipside of Cash's "It Ain't Me Babe," a nicely- harmonized duet between Berman and wife Cassie about a practical romance. Here, there, and everywhere, Berman's croak is all homage with not a drop of irony, skillfully avoiding a tumble into the uncanny valley of the shadow of Cash. In part this is because Berman's lyrics here gleefully dance around the edges of the abyss, only occasionally dipping a toe into downtrodden darkness but only to see if the water's warm, as on the eerie, off-kilter "My Pillow Is the Threshold," which sounds something like Johnny Cash covering Marilyn Manson covering Johnny Paycheck.
Overall the album is quite optimistic, even songs like the dirgey "Suffering Jukebox" avoiding the doldrums with clever lyrics ("Tennessee Tendencies and chemical dependencies") and their slightly out-of-tune wheeziness that for me calls to mind nothing so much as Altman's take on Popeye. "Strange Victory, Strange Defeat" is pure country rock anthem, sonically somewhere between Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" and Arcade Fire's "Keep the Car Running." Some of the best songs on the album are the character-driven narratives, dryly related by Berman as if they were parables. "Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer" is a silly, salsafied story-song about a dishwasher who doesn't fit in, and the album's centerpiece, "San Francisco B.C.", tells a "Boy Named Sue" like tale of crisscrossed lovers on the run, a gangster with "jeweler's hands and a blurry face" and a guy named Gene with a haircut that looks like "human error." Only occasionally does the overwhelming optimism and constant quirk drift into sheer silliness, as on the B-52s-friendly "Party Barge," and again on "Candy Jail," a modern-day "Big Rock Candy Mountain" that's a bit heavy on the candy imagery and so comes off sounding something like Hootie singing about the Burger King Bacon Cheddar Ranch. Thankfully the album is more Berman than Burger, and is just about as tasty as one could hope for. Take a bite, and enjoy.
Favorite Track: "San Francisco B.C."
Michael Fiegel is a freelance writer and graphic designer. His diverse
background includes journalism, radio copywriting, technical writing,
game design and music reviewing. He is best known as the creator of the
Internet cult sensation, Ninja Burger. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his website,