In Fall 2003, I was interning every Friday at the Manhattan District Attorney's office as part of an effort to (1) get course credit somewhere off of the Columbia campus, (2) enact some vague Law and Order based prosecutorial fantasies, and (3) get to know downtown New York. Not coincidentally, around the same time I was trying to dive into the frequently pretentious and largely incomprehensible (to me) waters of the New York music scene. I had made some forays into the world of "independent" (ha) music through various, uh file sharing services, and other online resources...but since the tastes of my law school friends tended towards jam bands, classic rock, and female folk singers I didn't really have anybody around to help me branch out into new (or new to me) musicians and styles....and, for me, striking up a conversation at Kim's or one of the used record stores on St. Mark's seemed about as foolhardy as asking about Comic Book Guy's thoughts on Superman.
So, enter Julia. On my second day at the DA's office she saw me rocking my brick sized Creative Labs MP3 player and asked what I was listening to. I started gushing about some band called Pavement that I had just started listening to (theSlanted and Enchanted: Luxe and Redux reissue). She indulged my fanboy enthusiasm for a minute and then informed me that, not only did she know who they were but she had been a die hard fan since, you know they were actually together and touring. So, we talked about Pavement, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Junior...I tried without much success to hold my own and not come off like a complete neophyte...and she eventually asked if I had heard Dave Berman's band, the Silver Jews. I, of course had not but they sounded good...and next Friday, sure enough, she brought me a CD (how quaint) with the album American Water (along with the song Tennessee).
American Water is one of those disks that just grabbed me from the first song (The brilliant Random Rules) and first lyric ("In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection") and didn't let go. Berman's cool, almost lazy arrangements effortlessly mix blues, bluegrass, country twang, and the easy "indie" rock that was the hallmark of many of Pavement's best songs. But, as good as the music is, Berman's evocative lyrics really steal the show (even if he claims that "a lot of what I say has been lifted of of men's room walls."). The album propels the listener along at the pace of a lazy cross country roadtrip ("The drums march along at the clip of an IV drip like sparks from a muffler dragged down the strip") taking in the sites along the way (from a midnight execution where "when they turn on the chair, something's added to the air" to a bar where the "rent became whiskey" and a "honky tonk psychiatrist" holds court into the wee hours of the night) and, of course making the sorts of observations that only a long car trip (and/or one of the many drugs Berman may have been consuming at the time) can inspire ("Is the problem that we can't see? Or is it that the problem is beautiful to me?"..."my ski vest has buttons like convenience store mirrors and they help me see that everything in this room right now is a part of me.").
It was the first of many albums that we exchanged but American Water still stands as the best and most personally meaningful of the bunch. If you haven't heard it, grab it...and if you have it, give it another listen
- courtesy of Paul Powell