Silver Jews Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

[Drag City; 2008]

Styles: scratchy old-timey jukebox favorites
Others: Beat Happening, Will Oldham, The B-52s

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea might be the first Silver Jews album where they sound not only like a fully formed band, but also like a band happy to be regularly cranking out their own wonderful brand of American Gothic-inflected, country-fried musical numbers. The past darkness that frontman David Berman has allowed his songs and vocal poetry to wallow in seems all but evaporated here, the band’s sixth full-length release, only reappearing in subtle fits and bursts. The songs this time around are of a less weighty stock, with Berman, his wife, bassist Cassie, and the rest of the band often delving into absurd jest. Does any of this make Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea a better album than the rest of their catalogue? Not exactly, but it is another great one.

The silly brightness that exudes from every corner of the album could stand as fuel for the band’s detractors. While it’s a refreshing change of pace coming from a group usually interested in more serious fare, it doesn’t always work as well as their standard. The lively nautical-themed fun-plosion of “Party Barge” is as likely to be smiled at as it is to have eyes rolled at. And with adorable lines like the one Cassie calls out (“Send us your coordinates/ I’ll send a Saint Bernard”), how could that not be expected? In fact, the jokey subject matter and Cassie’s sprightly vocals contrasted with David’s dry rumble finds the tunes shambling into territory most often tread upon by the likes of novelties such as The B-52s, for better or worse. A song like “Candy Jail” more aptly utilizes the lighter context by shaping it within the frames of a traditional Silver Jews composition, ending up somewhere along the lines of a successful Beat Happening facsimile. While sort of corny, none of these excursions are actually insufferable, and if the listener were in a particularly pleasant mood, she’d be hard-pressed not to enjoy them.

But as always, Berman and the Silver Jews work best in their classically sharp, witty song stylings and deftly produced Americana constructions. And most of the songs here exhibit just that. “What Is Not But Could Be If,” “My Pillow Is the Threshold,” and “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” fit this mold to a T, being culled from the same framework as most other Silver Jews classics and working equally as well without sounding like retreads. Berman’s penchant for storytelling is present on songs like the rousing and well-oiled stomper “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” and the steadily tumbling “San Francisco B.C.” Concluding ballad “We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing” showcases David and Cassie Berman locked in a sweetly-sung duet that easily matches or betters any others of the sort recorded in the past decade.

As always, Berman’s wordplay cuts cleanly and memorably and once again remains the group’s biggest appeal. He’s just not carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, like he was on Tanglewood Numbers. Almost more importantly, the band has really begun to gel together into a cohesive unit and clearly feels comfortable enough to branch off into a slew of different barroom moods and styles. Berman includes a helpful cheat sheet with the album’s liner notes displaying all of the songs’ chord progressions, stating that anyone can play these songs with minimal practice. But ultimately, easy to mimic or not (decidedly not), Berman and his band have risen above the simplicity of a few chords and settled into the life of a traveling group, focused and on point, and best of all taking pleasure in it. It’s fruitless not to join in accord.

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