For a fan such as myself, sitting down to listen to the Silver Jews' Tanglewood Numbers was somewhat like bumping into an old friend one hasn't seen in a long while, pleased to see that they retained qualities that drew you to them in the first place and yet changed in ways that have earned them new charm in your eyes. Indeed, Tanglewood Numbers should mark a happy reentry for old fans and a welcome introduction for those who have not yet come to know and appreciate Dave Berman's idiosyncratic, matter of truth tales and sardonic musings. With this latest record, however, Berman adds yet another set of elements to the mix: violins, Nashville swing, and, dare I say, actual happiness.
This is not to say that the Jews' bluesy, rock raucousness is not in full form. Indeed, a band of longtime supporting players (including Steve Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich of Pavement) weigh in to create a consistent rock record that delivers tracks such as "Punks in the Beerlight," "Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed," or "There is a Place III," complete with tight rock drumming, creative, winding guitar lines, and Berman's dry, grumbly vocals. Nor has Berman lost his developed sense of pathos, or his uncanny way of expressing it. "Where's the paper bag that holds the liquor? Just in case I feel the need to puke," sings Berman on "Punks in the Beerlight," or "I heard animal noises and tangled up voices chanting more and of rumors of more/There's no natural law that can explain what I saw" on "The Farmer's Hotel" are just two brief glimpses into the darker shape of these songs.
Yet, while these familiar elements -- personnel, bluesy rock reference points, and overcast stories -- are in place, there is something decidedly breezy and fresh about the record as well. New players wife Cassie Berman and Will Oldham (Palace, Bonnie Prince Billie), among others, add to the joyful burst of energy and old country feel, respectively, that run throughout the record. "How Can I Love You If You Won't Lie Down" is one example of Cassie Berman's vocal contributions to the records's traightforward singing style that brings a buoyant energy to match well against Dave Berman's coarse, wry sing-talking. Meanwhile, tracks such as "The Farmer's Hotel" -- one of the record's brightest spots in full display of Berman's storytelling abilit -- ”is permeated by an old country swing. Pianos, staccatoed violins, lackadaisical whistling, delayed guitar bends, and Cassie's background vocals are all well orchestrated into the mix.
What seems to cement, finally, the joyful bent of this record are a thematic focus on sources of worldly happiness (namely love), an underlying bliss in Berman's vocal delivery, and an upbeat rhythm that doesn't slow down. "Animal Shapes" is another track on this record that's an easy favorite. "The last dream worth believing," sings Berman in earnest, "starts with animal shapes/Nothing better get in the way of whatever it takes." The track is indeed in keeping with the pace of the record as a whole, consistently upbeat and toe-tapping friendly, even when songs end up detouring into darker thematic territory (as any Silver Jews record will inevitably do).
Overall, Tanglewood Numbers shows the Silver Jews at their best -- smart, funny, sad and earnest, without one self-indulgent slip into bad poetry. At ten economical tracks, Berman keeps it sharp and friendly the whole listen through. - Christine Back Ms. Back lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn with three guitars, a 1950s Mason & Hamlin piano, and a beagle. When not studying legal doctrine and social justice law, she fronts the indie-rock band Que Verde and dabbles in art, film, and writing projects.