I’d heard of the Silver Jews, but I never listened to them. I had no idea that Berman started his first band with Stephen Malkmus, who soon after started Pavement, one of the most successful of the 90s indie bands. I like Pavement a lot, on record. I saw them twice live and didn’t think things held up. The tension that made the records strong was lost on stage. But the records are really good. And when David Berman died this week, and I read more about him, I was sorry I hadn’t checked him out sooner. He was a satirist, a romantic of sorts (as satirists often are), and even more shambolic than Pavement. What I wasn’t prepared for when I put on American Water, his 2008 record that is generally considered his masterwork, was how much it felt like Pavement. But I’m not here to figure out where dividing lines are. Malkmus plays and sings on American Water. Pavement was never a hit, but they were selling albums and playing lots of shows at this point. It’s hard not to imagine that Malkmus was suggesting getting a little more dynamic, putting more into the mix, whatever. I don’t know.
What I know is that American Water is a pretty good record, and my favorite parts were those that Malkmus wasn’t singing, wasn’t playing. Berman’s voice is not that of a singer, but his words are those of a lyricist who comes from poetry. They’re good! And the songs aren’t always songs, but they’re useful settings for the words and some guitar solos that can capture you for a moment, and then seem to forget why they’re there.
So, trying to figure it out I visited Pitchfork and found a near perfect record review/appreciation by a guy named Mike Powell. It was only written 19 years or so after the elpee came out, but that doesn’t matter. Listen to the album, read this review. I’m not sure how much there is to all of David Berman’s musical career, but this is a great place to start.