September 9, 2004

The Pretty Toney Column: The Silver Jews

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Undoubtedly, one of the great crimes in all of music journalism occurs whenever the Silver Jews are mislabeled as a Pavement side-project simply because Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich are prominently involved. The Silver Jews are, without question, poet/songwriter David Berman’s band. I say this even though I, like everyone else, was first inspired to tap into Berman’s discography because of the Pavement thing. And I say this even though I’m currently about to devote an entire column to “Night Society,” the only song on the Silver Jews’ American Water where Malkmus takes center stage.

Malkmus was a founding member of the Silver Jews at their first incarnation as Ectoslavia in 1989, appearing on the group’s original EPs and 1994 debut full-length Starlite Walker. After a brief hiatus. Malkmus returned for 1998’s American Water.

American Water is Berman’s musical masterwork, featuring transcendent lyrics and affecting vocals. Malkmus is relegated to background duty, and he performs skillfully, providing vocals when needed, but mainly filling in as lead guitarist, where he quietly submits some of the best work of his career.

Well “Night Society” is the best work of his career. Rolling in unexpectedly after two mostly acoustic songs — including the flawless opener, “Random Rules” — “Night Society” is a rumbling tour-de-force which, for a two-minute-plus guitar solo, comes across as surprisingly scant.

Unlike many other classic solos, “Night Society” is neither technically overwhelming nor heart-wrenchingly passionate. It’s actually rather simple, as variations of the same lick are repeated over and over. Some improvisation takes place, but Malkmus never strays too far from the structure established at the song’s outset. Berman’s rhythm guitar holds steady amongst Tim Barnes’ crashing cymbals and snares, but Malkmus stands alone at the front of the production, where nothing interferes with his piercing attack. As the song fades away, the listener is awestruck. American Water continues onward, but the impact of “Night Society” is undeniable; on an album full of poetic brilliance, no other moment is as overpowering. On a personal note, this song is in my head all the time. And it’s easy to see why, as “Night Society” surpasses all other guitar work in Malkmus’s catalog. It’s even better than his solo at the end of “Fin,” and even better than his solo on “Machine Gun.”

Archived article by Ross McGowan
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer