American Water (Drag City)
by Nik Rainey
Unlike, oh, let’s be kind and say 90% of those currently making music, D.C. Berman, the most sterling Semite among the Silver Jews, can actually write lyrics. Good ones. Words that, as with the best poetry, surpass all rational/logical meaning and revel in the pure, surreal, intoxicating joy of language itself. Words that, and this is a source of no small amazement to me, actually hold up when cast in nine-point type and stapled into a CD booklet. How d’ya like this for a grabber fit to make the most grizzled creative-writing-class veteran weep in their syllabus: “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” Okay, fine, maybe it’s not quite Pound’s Cantos (and I doubt he would have used this name if he formed a band), but even if it’s not necessarily better than Ezra (keep moving, keep moving), it surely flails the hell out of most of the mongrel doggerel that keeps squatting over rock’s lawn, and it has the added bonus of matching every hairpin turn of phrase with an unaffected sincerity that lets the wordplay fortify the soil rather’n leave a stagnant puddle on the surface. (“The birds of Virginia are flying within you/and like background singers they all come in threes.”) Berman, like any master wordsmith, knows not to put too many ironies in the fire, but he also learned a somewhat more dubious trick from other lyrical geniuses such as (pre-Hawks) Dylan and (pre-Casio) Cohen: If you’re gonna write brilliant words, don’t let the tunes or your voice distract the listener from them. Like the aforementioned pair, Berman possesses a flat, essentially tuneless (though not inexpressive) voice and his instrumental backdrops tend to be merely functional, that very nineties melangé of country, folk, and a touch of bleached R&B with most genre-specific idiosyncrasies filtered out so as not to offend the delicate blandishments of the collegiate sensibility – roots music for rootless people. (No accident that Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus plays a prominent supporting role in this band.)
Then again, about halfway through American Water, the music begins to warm to the words’ expansive wit and well-tempered calibration, blossoming of its own accord into a distinct voice of its own, seconding Berman’s pledges of affection and plaints of disaffection to the point that you’ll be backtracking to the album credits to see from which honky-tonk prophet of yore “Honk If You’re Lonely” was reclaimed. But even when the music doesn’t quite rate (and the shambling swipes at harmony ‘twixt Berman and Malkmus dangle off the outer edge of charm), the words always keep to their self-assured footing in their duct tape shoes, moustaches caked with airplane glue and eyes glittering at the sight of amethyst eyes, protestant thighs, and shimmering socialist jewels with tan lines on their ring fingers, all shining out in the wild kindness.
(2000 West Carroll St. #201 Chicago, IL 60612)