Archive for the 'Alt Country' Category


Silver Jews “Bright Flight”

I know something about this band Silver Jews, that it’s mostly this guy David Berman, and there have been a lot of collaborators, including Stephen Malkmus (in the past, not here), and they put out a few records and then broke up, or stopped playing, or recording (though I suppose that a band or person can just record a record again at any time, if they are still alive, and want to, no matter how much they are retired, so what does that even mean). Six albums, I guess, between 1994 and 2008, and this one is somewhere in the middle, 2001. But I’m pretending I know nothing, like I just picked this up out of a pile of random records (which I did, essentially) not knowing anything (which I don’t, essentially). The first song, the initial impression, is that this is country and western music (steel guitar, country piano, Nashville references, George Strait cover, picture on back cover wearing a too small western shirt with embroidered scorpions), that’s what it is, but something that would be considered “alternative country” in that David Berman’s singing has that quality that some people would call bad singing, but I call great singing—the closer you listen the more complex the person behind the voice gets. It also helps that the lyrics are at worst impossibly catchy and at best life changing poetry.

If one set out to create an uglier album cover than this one, just forget it, you’ve lost. It’s a flat, flash photograph of a nasty old couch with a tattered spiral bound notebook sitting on it, and there’s what looks like some colored stickers on the notebook creating an abstract design, and also what looks like the number “4” on the notebook. It occurs to me that it’s the 4th Silver Jews album and the cover photo and number 4 could be a reference to Led Zeppelin IV (if you squint, you can see a similarity between the two covers) (also, “Bright Flight”/”Stairway to Heaven”—get it?)—and now it occurs to me that IV is not just “4” it also means intravenous, and most likely “Stairway to Heaven” is about heroin. (If you ever find yourself on Jeopardy and the category is “popular song meanings”—just keep hitting the buzzer and saying, “What is heroin,” and you’ll probably come out ahead.) In fact, seeing how every other song on this record has a reference to horses, I have to assume either Berman is an avid equestrian or else it’s a lot about heroin.

All of my nonsense here is an attempt to not try and fail to express just how good these lyrics are, and how catchy these songs are, and how lovely it all is. I think this is my new favorite record of all time, no exaggeration. I think I just joined the club of nerdy, pathetic music fans who have “Silver Jews” tattooed on an important part of their brain. Now I know how people felt about JD Salinger. (Oh, wait, I was one of those people, too.) And it’s even worse with the internet. Look, I consider myself a songwriter, or former songwriter. I feel like there is no worse feeling in the world than to know you’ve come up with some kind of wonderful song, seemingly out of nowhere, and then not be able to do it again. It’s a wonder that any songwriter survives past the age of thirty. I guess the only thing to do, sometimes, is reinvent yourself. But then you probably already know all this. But if you don’t believe me, find a couple of these songs, like “Slow Education” or “I Remember Me” or “Tennessee”—and if they aren’t the best songs you’ve ever heard, go get yourself a new set of friends.


The Court & Spark “Bless You”

This pleasant, mellow, kind of country-sounding record is the first I’ve ever heard of The Court & Spark, and this was a case where I had to use the internet to determine the band name from the record name, “Bless You” – as well as figure out what that strange symbol on the cover is (it’s “&” – with an odd, deco-ish font). The record company is Absolutely Kosher, from San Francisco, and the label is chocolate brown with simple grey lettering. The band name and title is written so small on the spine it could fit on a vitamin pill. The photo on the front and back is of the sun rising or setting over desert mountains – the back could be a corny poster with an uplifting message. The front has what looks like a woodcut depiction of a large bird, like an eagle – it’s likely referring to something that I don’t know – because in itself it’s as meaningless as the album title, a phrase that I most associate with someone sneezing.

There is an insert with credits and the only place I can find the date: 2001. There are six listed members of the band, plus six other names with individual music credits. For all those people, the music is sparse and minimal, and the production pretty traditional  except for the drums and percussion which are really prominent and with a lot of personality. The band members are modestly without any instrumental or songwriting designation. Most of the singing seems to be by one guy (or it could be more than one) who has a kind of educated, boozy voice that sounds like he’s from the Midwest and moved around a bit, picking up inflections here and there.

On the third song, a woman’s voice comes in about halfway through (though she is subtly present on the first two songs) and for the first time I turn my head in the direction of the turntable to see if an otherworldly presence has been conjured. It has. Throughout the record, the acoustic guitars, the steel guitar, the silences and space, and the sometimes very familiar arrangements, the one thing that really stands out to me is this woman’s singing on roughly half of the ten tracks. I’m not working hard enough to pick up any of the lyrics, but if I return, it will be for the singing, so I might give the words a spin.


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