Thursday, June 19, 2008

Music Review: Silver Jews - Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, the latest offering from indie darlings Silver Jews, is a tough album to define. It’s not that it’s inaccessible, although David Berman’s ragged voice certainly won’t attract the mainstream crowd or other non-believers. It’s also not a mailed-in effort; the typical Silver Jews sound, and Berman’s lyrical observations, are present and used to good effect. Overall it’s a solid album.

That’s part of the problem. The songs are good, but they aren’t exactly outstanding or mind-blowing. There aren’t as many of the holy shit musical or lyrical moments that can be found on previous Silver Jews albums. With no real high or low points, the album sort of just rolls along, never gaining momentum and leaving the listener a little confused, disoriented, and underwhelmed. It’s like walking into a movie that’s halfway over.

This tone is largely set by opening track “What Is Not But Could Be If.” Besides sounding like the title to a poem a troubled and overly-sensitive college undergrad might scrawl, it’s a weird way to open the album. Vague and excessively slow, it’s an anti-climactic song right out of the gates, and it’s placement as the first track throws off the pacing of the rest of the album. This is immediately felt when the up-tempo second track, "Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer" kicks in. There’s just something about the running order of the songs that seems a little off.

The mix of the album is also disappointing and doesn’t serve the songs very well; it lacks the warmth of American Water and, to a lesser extent, Tanglewood Numbers. Some of the instruments sound buried and too low on many of the songs. This strange separation between the vocals and the instrumentation makes it sometimes sound like the two are separate, distinct parts that don't really mesh together. And I’m all for keeping the wife happy, but bassist/Berman wife Cassie Berman is ridiculously upfront in the vocal mix, most notably on “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” and “Suffering Jukebox.”

Like any other Silver Jews album, Berman’s lyrics are again one of the album’s greatest strengths. Alternately humorous and poignant, with plenty of observations ranging from the banal and silly to those of pure brilliance that will make fledgling lyric writers everywhere jealous, the lyrics do somewhat offset the album’s overall odd and ineffective flow.

The previously mentioned “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” is damn funny in a bizarre and twisted way, describing a dishwasher fellow who meets a girl described as a “hardcore gobbler and a longtime guzzler of hydrogenated crap.” Similarly, in “San Francisco B.C.,” amid a collection of criminals and dodgy characters with lousy haircuts, Berman offers up perhaps the best line of the entire album: “Romance is the douche of the bourgeoisie was the very first thing she imparted to me.”

By and large, Berman’s misfits on Lookout seem far less desperate and fractured than those hapless souls from previous albums. As with any lyricist whose songs often come across (or are interpreted by fans and critics) as highly personal, the obvious temptation is to view this shift in light of what is known about how Berman’s life has stabilized in the last few years. Of course, this is pure speculation and critics and fans would be misguided to apply their limited knowledge of such things to the songs. Lyrically, the songs stand on their own, regardless of whether the listener wants to view them as biographical or not.

Lookout is a good album with good songs. Even if it doesn’t quite stack up to the Silver Jews’ best work, it’s worth checking out and giving a spin. But, like some of Berman’s more troubled characters, it never really gains any steam or goes very far.

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