American Water

Band: Silver Jews
Album: American Water
Best song: “Random Rules” and “Send in the Clouds” are lovely songs.
Worst song: “We Are Real” isn’t great.

There’s a certain breed of indie rock singer/songwriter that’s remained constant, the deep-voiced misanthrope. They come in different flavors, whether it’s the old South warbling of Will Oldham, the wholly strange Bill Callahan or Jason Molina’s industrial North Neil Young impression, these singers can bring colorful storytelling, a distinct delivery and stilted writing.

David Berman is often thrown into this mix and I’d say that’s probably incorrect. While the Silver Jews isn’t a project far off from the aforementioned musicians, he is decidedly more cryptic and far more optimistic.

Moreover, it’s the Pavement connection that fueled the early Silver Jews records. Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich’s presence on the records seem to mark Silver Jews as a Pavement side project, though that’s quite incorrect. Indeed, the Pavement tinge is the side dish to Berman’s main course. It is a nice addition to the party, but hardly the Silver Jews sound.

American Water is the best of Berman’s work. Pitchfork, in a review of Berman’s final record, calls the album’s opening line (“In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.”) “among the greats.” I don’t disagree, but the key point is American Water‘s opening song is a tour de force. “Random Rules” is both caustic and pleasant, somehow.

The album’s Malkmus moments are well-tempered with Berman and make for beautiful music. “People” has a wah wah pedal-fueled funk guitar thing as the verse backdrop as Berman sings an observational ditty. The chorus lilts with Malkmus and Berman doubling one another. The chorus ends with Malkmus alone and a Pavement riff that hangs in the air. Similarly, “Federal Dust” is the most Pavement-esque on the record — dour and scattered. — and “Blue Arrangements” sounds as something that could have been on Brighten the Corners, laid back and suburban.

It’s the observational songwriting aspects of the record that makes songs like “Smith & Jones Forever” such landmarks. Berman’s simple vocal style — he sometimes even sounds bored — is fun and pleasant and the production surrounding it is flawless. Berman and Malkmus’ blues guitar work is amateurish and charming, as “We Are Real” sounds like any of the classic white boy cops (paging Bob Dylan). “Honk If You’re Lonely” has a 1970s folk record’s feel with a touchy guitar line and a jaunty drum.

The album’s highlight is the lovely and charming “Send in the Clouds.” Armed with the innocent-sounding but complex line “Why can’t monsters get along with other monsters?” Berman’s existentialism seeps through the song. He sounds as cryptic as he is in interviews (example here), Berman recounts a biographical sketch of troubled youth and questioning the world. It’s a departure from the album’s optimism, but challenging and catchy.

American Water is a folk rock record through and through, but it is the best Silver Jews’ record, hands down. The record dances around various microgenres and borrows from friend Malkmus’ other band heavily, but in the best possible combination.

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

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