Let’s get a few things out of the way right off the bat. I love the Silver Jews. I love everything about them, from when David Berman, Stephen Malkmus, and Bob Nastanovich met at UVA and formed the band right around the same time Malkmus and Nastanovich were starting up Pavement, all the way up through Berman refusing to tour behind his records until the release of 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers. I also dig the abrupt way Berman closed the casket on the project, playing their final show in 2009 at the very literally underground Cumberland Caverns just outside of Nashville, TN. As sad as it was to see them go, that was badass.
But even so, Silver Jews never struck me as the sort of band I’d go to great lengths to hear unrehearsed fuzz-cuts from–mainly because their music is already pretty rough around the edges, and to be fair, it has a sort of stream-of-conscious drawl to it that doesn’t really need to be dressed down. Starlite Walker and The Natural Bridge, for example, were charmingly understated records, with their acute imperfections coolly hanging out in the open. And as Berman proudly toted on American Water‘s “We Are Real”, “All [his] favorite singers couldn’t sing.” It makes sense then, that, for all intents and purposes, neither could he. He was never trying to pretend otherwise.
So then, Early Times, a collection of figuratively pre-pubescent tape-fuzz that attempts to matter to us in some way, fails at being anything other than a mish-mash of crudely recorded, harsh sounding Silver Jews castaways. This is a compilation for the Silver Jews/Pavement completest, if anything. It’s the type of thing one would listen to merely out of curiosity and then most likely never return to again. That being said, its greatest asset is the way it paints a scuzzy picture of this captivating band’s meager beginnings, which, as evidenced here, were very meager. Hints of Pavement and The Jews are sorta here, but it’s a pretty tough sell, too. Still, it’s fun to picture these songs being recorded in burnt-out Virginia dorms, with a young Berman and Malkmus screaming their heads off and banging on trashcans.
Besides its total ignorance of sonic value, the most noteworthy thing about this collection is easily Malkmus’ vocal prominence. At times, it’s hard to tell if anybody besides Malkmus is even on lead, let alone yelping in the background. For instance, “Secret Knowledge of Back Roads”, one of the few tracks here ever worth revisiting, could have easily found a place on Pavement’s Westing (By Musket and Sextant). It’s a darker, slow-rolling jam which sounds vaguely like “Fillmore Jive”, though not anywhere near as revelatory or monumental. It’s a nice addition to a fairly hard-to-bear listen.
But really, besides that, each Malkmus-heavy song here is as I-don’t-give-a-shit Malkmus as it gets. Malkmus screaming “I CAN’T FUCK! TOUGH LUCK” or “Soap opera fags! Soap opera fags!” are honestly two of the record’s most comprehensible (and memorable) lyrics, displaying an immature songwriter trying to figure out how to be offensive without actually offending anybody–something he would sort of master with Pavement. It also seems like Berman and Malkmus used to sing with a similar slacker-swagger. Much of the time here, they’re switching off verses, or just screaming at the same time, their clipped vocal takes melding into one lo-fi disaster. Nastanovich is probably in there too, but you’d never be able to tell who is who under all that static.
At times, Berman actually takes the lead and displays a messily sketched mock-up of his later self. “The Walnut Falcon” sees Berman describing the flight plan of a mystical falcon in between yelps from Malkmus, vaguely resembling the reluctant, post-country drawl that would eventually define the band’s sound. It (along with maybe the GBV-indebted “The Wild Palms”) proves to be a nice blueprint for what Silver Jews would eventually resemble. A mumbling, low-range Berman slinking over the dark grooves of Malkmus’ dissonant guitars serves as a welcomed reminder of the final score. But even if you stare hard through the clipped haze and distortion of Early Times, you’ll barely catch a glimpse of how great of a band Silver Jews ultimately became. And experiencing that isn’t nearly as fun a reality as Drag City might have hoped it’d be.
Essential Tracks: ”The Walnut Falcon”, “Secret Knowledge of Back Roads”