Feb 192014
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

For most of their lifetime, the Silver Jews never toured and rarely played live. In fact, they hardly existed between albums. All that changed in 2006 when, after emerging alive from drug addiction, head Joo David Berman gathered players from the band’s 2nd and 4th albums to hit the road in support of Tanglewood Numbers. They promised to try their best and, generally, fans were pleased, if not ecstatic, to hear the songs they had long listened closely to on headphones blasted from a stage. But all that excitement may have been the beginning of the end. The band’s next album — the first written “post-applause” — would be their last. In January 2009, Berman announced that the Silver Jews were no more and he was “moving over to another category. Screenwriting or Muckraking.”

You can trust that the legacy of the Silver Jews will remain. From their early times as friends making up songs fueled by cheap beer to their Nashville years as a semi-pro band, the Silver Jews racked up one of the best catalogues to ever get slandered with the label “slacker.” Almost always, Berman’s literate, slantwise lyrics were the main event. Indeed, up until the end he was indie rock’s best purveyor of country one-liners and free associative observations. On rare occasions, Berman and company (David would likely hate that phrase being associated with him) covered other artists, using their powers to either leave a mess on the floor or to teach you that you actually like a song by an artist you assume you hate.

Silver Jews – Cocksucker Blues (Rolling Stones cover)


Described as a “truly dreadful take” by Trouser Press, this cover of the Rolling Stonesattempted sabotage of a contractual obligation was recorded in 1993 at the Drag City Invitational. Berman said he chose to cover the song because he “wanted to do something risky” after the Joos were chosen to close out the second night of the Invitational. Before they went on, Berman pitched the song to Stephen Malkmus, giving him enough of a listen to pick up “one guitar motif.” They didn’t even bother letting drummer Bob Nastanovich in on the planning. “And that was the last show we did as the original three Silver Jews,” according to Berman. More shocking than exciting, this is best listened to as a historical document.

Silver Jews – Good Advices (R.E.M. cover)


In the early ’90s, Berman left New York City and his three-person clique for Western Massachusetts. While pursuing an MFA in poetry at UMass-Amherst, Berman fell in with the local Chunk Records scene, even putting out a split Silver Jews/New Radiant Storm King 7-inch that was the label’s all-time best seller. In 1994, Chunk released a compilation CD, Hotel Massachusetts, which attempted to capture the aura of that era of Northampton, MA indie rock. The Silver Jews capped off the disc with this hard-to-recognize and not quite complete rendition of R.E.M.’s “Good Advices.” Honestly, it’s not a great cover, but you know, they didn’t play live much in those days.

Silver Jews – Friday Night Fever (George Strait cover)


The first proper, studio-recorded cover the Silver Jews ever put out. It might take a casual fan, one who is not apt to pore over linear notes and lyric sheets, several listens before realizing this isn’t a Berman-penned original. That fan might then get a rude awakening upon discovering that they’ve been enjoying a song made famous by George Strait, potentially leading to a reconsideration of their appreciation/asserted disdain of mainstream country.

Silver Jews – Open Field (Maher Shalal Hash Baz cover)


Berman has described his final album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, as being composed with thematic intent, acting as the “the solution to the problem of the first five records.” “Side one recapitulates the darkness and dread of the other albums,” said Berman. “Side two is operating with a post-hell consciousness.” This song, which Berman first heard after Stephen Pastel sent him several records by this Scotland-based Japanese band, acts as the transition point. “I thought ‘Open Field’ was like what you hit when you walk out of the dark forest of side one,” said Berman. The Silver Jews infuse this minimalist palette cleanser with meaning and grace. Cassie Berman’s backing vocals are a particular highlight.

Silver Jews – I Loved Them Everyone (T.G. Sheppard cover)

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The Joos played this early ’80s country hit on their first U.S. tour. When some in the audience in Boston responded to Sheppard’s name with an excited “Whoo!”, Berman chastised the crowd, saying, “Don’t ‘whoo’ that guy. He’s a man who wears ugly sweaters from the ’80s.” The song is better than the sweaters, though, even if Berman reportedly left the stage before it ended that night in Boston.

Silver Jews – O Captain! My Captain! (Walt Whitman cover)


Berman has been described as “indie’s poet laureate,” so it’s not shocking to hear him put a famous poem to music. Using a simple chord progression (as most Silver Jews songs do), he rescues Walt Whitman’s tribute to the slain Abraham Lincoln from the schmaltz poured on it by Dead Poets Society. It’s a shame Berman ended the Silver Jews before ever recording a studio version. If we’re lucky, one day he will.

David Berman’s highly praised poetry collection Actual Air is available on Amazon; so is his music.

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