Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Simpler pre-Pavement times of recording on Walkmans and answering machines are captured on Silver Jews’ aptly named Early Times. The epitome of lo-fi, Early Times consists of the self-recorded original takes of all tracks from 1992’s Dime Map Of The Reef (Silver Jews’ first on Drag City) and 1993’s The Arizona Record, both out of print.
Formed in ’89, Silver Jews – comprised of David Berman and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Bob Natasnovich – stayed relatively low profile and lo-fi, and were frequently misconstrued as a Pavement side project, though Berman was the band’s core and driving force.
There are two plain ways to listen to Early Times; it can be appreciated in the obvious literal sense as 15 early Silver Jews songs in rudimentary form, or the poor quality can almost be looked at as an art form. This is, after all, an age in which artists are intentionally making terrible quality records to revert back to the charms of early, junky garage rock.
Berman’s voice comes through the static hiss like a phantom. A rare live performer, the scratchiness makes him sound even more removed. His Lou Reed-like bored, cool-kid drone cuts through slipshod guitar and drums that cut off suddenly and are awkwardly spliced with overdubs, like the verse that abruptly cuts out, then back in on “Jackson Nightz,” ending with a brief “that’s it” from the singer. Nuances like that, more than anything else, are what will grab Silver Jews diehards.
The quality being as shoddy as it is, usually one element in a song prevails over the rest; it’s hard to ignore the lazy, rusty guitar on “SVM F.T. TROOPS” that takes a ’70s protopunk cue and wanders for five minutes over a muffled, simplistic drumbeat, while “Welcome to the House of the Bats” stands out as Berman repeats the eerie-funny greeting again and again in the chorus. The Arizona Record’s “Secret Knowledge of Back Roads,” the loveliest of the rereleases, seems appropriately centered in Early Timesas a scratchy lullaby for a ’90s kid.
This scrap of a record is nothing more than something a hardcore collector adds to the library for completion’s sake, but there is something evocative in the sound of three friends pounding out what would become their first records; it’s a candid audio scrapbook of sorts for them and whoever’s listening.