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Nashville Scene A New Shine

Silver Jews tunesmith/poet moves to town

By Heather Nelson

JANUARY 17, 2000:  Musicians are moving to Nashville all the time, and in seemingly greater numbers than ever before: Country singers and songwriters still come looking for a break, while college students have been increasingly attracted by MTSU's and Belmont's music-business programs, not to mention the relatively low cost of living. Musician and poet David Berman hardly fits either of those molds, but his recent relocation to Nashville only offers further proof of the growth and diversity of the city's musical talent.

For those unfamiliar with Berman's work, he's most commonly recognized as the man behind the Silver Jews, who've released several records on the Chicago-based indie Drag City Records (home to Jim O'Rourke, Palace, and Royal Trux, among others). Berman writes all of the Silver Jews' material and employs an ever-changing cast of musicians; the only regular is Pavement's Steve Malkmus, who has played guitar on two of the band's three full-length albums.

On his latest release, American Water, Berman couches his observant, painfully honest lyrics in sparse, stoned rock melodies and a lazy country drawl. The real meat of the Silver Jews, in fact, is Berman's lyrics. While his unflinching gaze doesn't edit out the uncomfortable realities from the beautiful revelations, he is a humorous, playful, and sometimes odd tunesmith. "You have to trust a singer," he explains, "and I don't trust a singer who isn't brave enough to live in the times no matter how ugly they may be. A fetishization of misery, however, would make a song unsingable to me."

In "We Are Real," Berman sings, "Is it the problem that we can't see, or is it that the problem is beautiful to me?/Won't soul music change, now that our souls have turned strange/Repair is the dream of the broken thing/All my favorite singers couldn't sing."

Appropriately enough for a singer so focused on lyrics, Berman recently released his first book of poetry, Actual Air, published by Open City Press. But unlike Jewel or Jim Morrison, who have released books of so-called poetry that even fans find questionable at best, Berman betrays true skill as a poet. The same voice found in Berman's lyrics weaves together the tales in Actual Air, but the poetry clearly has been crafted with much more precision and eloquence.

Though you might expect an indie rocker's poetry to possess more whining and cynicism than gentle literary intelligence, Berman communicates with an air of effortlessness and hope. With one sentence, he establishes a mood in "Snow": "When it's snowing, the outdoors seem like a room." And in "The New Idea," he includes this beautifully accurate description: "Due to its dense history of uncomfortable moments, our elevator is haunted with poorly conceived smiles and sinking hearts, so I take the stairs/I suppose it's difficult to work with people who are comfortable inside of nightmares, though even the numbest of us are intimidated by the unnatural bulk of 'his' life story."

When asked how much he will participate in the Nashville music scene, Berman explains that he rarely plays live; he has only performed 10 to 15 times since the Silver Jews' debut in 1994. "There are studio musicians, people who just write, [and] people who just play live," he states, "and I'll take two of those three. It's funny that musicians are the only artists asked to go on the road and sell their work. To me, that's what touring is, selling a record."

Conversely, Berman does poetry readings fairly often, and he intends to do some here. He also says he may record the album he's currently writing in a Nashville studio. Of local bands, he cites the Brian Kotzur Band as his favorite. "One thing that cracks me up in the Nashville local music scene," he laughs, "is this verbal battle between Music Row and alt-country. Alternative country, to me, is just as ridiculously empty in a different way--it's just that they're not in power. All these people singing about a life they never knew--it's really a fetishization of Depression-era country life. If authenticity is the issue, then there's something more authentic to me about Wal-Mart country, which speaks to the real needs or lives of people who listen more than talking about grain whiskey stills."

It's not surprising that a musician who melds poetic rock with a country-based aesthetic would move to Nashville. For the Virginia-born Berman, however, this music- and now football-centric town stands out as a welcome change from his eight-month stay in Louisville, Ky., where his girlfriend was finishing college. "I really hated Louisville," he admits. "There's a dark sorrow over that city. We like it here a lot--there's an optimism in the air when a town is growing--but really we just moved down the highway."

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