Silver Jews, Scala, London

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The Independent Culture

David Berman's dread at playing live has kept his Silver Jews a studio band for the 16 years of their existence. He has known musicians who have been less picky, such as his former bandmate Steven Malkmus, who went on to be leader of the Nineties alt.rock kings Pavement. Berman meanwhile recorded seven Silver Jews albums in his Nashville home, often with Malkmus's involvement.

Silver Jews songs share with Pavement a sardonically clever concentration of ideas, and a consequent suspicion of emotional distance, as if their wit is their point. But Berman's perfectionist craft, and the suffering and redemption his songs describe, show their seriousness. Bright Flight (2001) was recorded immediately after two of his friends fatally overdosed, as his own addictions to crack and vodka took hold. Last year's Tanglewood Numbers was preceded by a suicide attempt, sobriety, marriage to Cassie Berman (on bass tonight), and new engagement with the religious side of his Jewishness.

Having made so many traumatic breakthroughs, playing live, which they've done several times in recent months, must have finally seemed a minor matter. He steps out to make his UK debut to a full house heavy with underground Americana aficionados. He's wearing a black suit, and looks haggard, hunching over the music stand from which he reads his lyrics.

The Silver Jews, meanwhile, live up to their Nashville heritage, playing Cosmic American Honkytonk music. They're a crack band, hampered only by muggy sound. Even so, they're worth it. "She was shivering so hard," he sings during "Pet Politics", "it felt like there were two of her". "Random Rules" meanwhile boasts his definitive opening line: "In 1984, I was hospitalised for gross imperfection". That song's oblique autobiography is soon followed by an encore - "This is such a charade!" he moans, "and we don't even deserve it!" - which causes scattered dancing for "Punks in the Beerlight".

That just sets us up for Tanglewood Numbers' darkest song, "There is a Place". Berman intones: "I saw God's shadow on this world". He looks drained and defiant as he entwines the pain he's suffered in recent years with a consideration of faith. Berman is wrestling with fundamental aspects of himself, while maintaining a wry smile. He should do this more often.

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