Silver Jews
Early Times
Drag City

Remember back when Silver Jews were just a Pavement side project? You know, like how Sebadoh was a Dinosaur Jr. side project? Well, the folks at Drag City have graciously released a compilation of the first few Silver Jews releases, which contains “all of the songs from ‘Dime Map of the Reef’ and The Arizona Record and none of the songs not on them.” The reissue, aptly named Early Times (like the vile Kentucky whiskey), contains some bright inkling of what would come in future releases by prolific main man David Berman and a time-stamped picture of the lo-fi pop jazzbo Stephen Malkmus would come to be indie famous for. This is a young band attempting to sound like themselves with absolutely no desire to sound like anyone else at all. If those first few Pavement records weren’t hissy enough for Malkmus, he would find his outlet here on static-attacked songs like “Canada,” where whoever is drumming is more off time than Gary Young at his wildest, and “September 1999,” where Malkmus was maybe wondering what he’d be doing if Pavement broke up? This is the most lo-fi Silver Jews would ever be. For a fan of Silver Jews and Pavement alike, speculative readings of lyrics always ends up leading to an alternate path of discovery and mainly to a new personal meaning beyond that of what either songwriter even meant. This is why Berman would be able to write records like Bright Flight and publish his words like a real poet, and why Malkmus would find such success with Pavement. The lyric-centered songs, written through pure craft by obfuscating a specific incident or describing a scene with such pinpoint accuracy as to remove all contexts, will always seem more prodigious to the listener (as opposed to the writer). There’s so much to look for when you’re on the receiving end. Maybe they’re just explaining exactly how it was.

In the case of Early Times, I like to think Berman, Malkmus and Bobby Nastanovich got high on cheap whiskey and jug wine in the kitchen with a tape recorder. With a vocal mic hooked up to an amp, they just recorded whatever lyrical vomit Malkmus hurled out the top of his head or plucked along on guitar to Berman’s balladry in the most genuine way that only these three capable musicians could. Maybe there’s a rehearsed song, evidenced in the dueling duet vocals on “Secret Knowledge of Back Roads” or “I Love the Rights.” But songs like “SVM F.T. TROOPS” obviously just follow Malkmus’s lead into oblivion, and “THE Unchained Melody” is really just a snippet of what might have been a full-on Pavement anthem. “The War in Apartment 1812” is a clear indicator of the path the Silver Jews would take in the future, a volume-pumper so screechingly hissy that you have to activate the Dolby button on your cassette player to walk away with your cilia intact.

There’s plenty here to extrapolate or explicate, but it will take many listens to clear it up and get it right. Early Times is the sound of visionary rockers having fun, writing songs just for the sake of writing songs. It doesn’t play out like a full piece, but all the pieces are there. Oh how I wish I had bought “Dime Map of the Reef” (mythically thought to have been recorded on an answering machine) when I first saw it, but in my teenaged wisdom, I passed it up for a Built to Spill record. Silver Jews has much more staying power, and though Early Times is just a blink of a glimpse at the infinitely relistenable body of work the band generated, it is also a sincere picture of the origins of some of the best rock in the past 20 years.
Michael O’Shaughnessy