Release Date: Jun 19, 2012
Record label: Drag City
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Originally released as the "Dime Map of the Reef" single and The Arizona Record EP, this collects the grotty indie-strum laid down in Jersey City during the first Bush administration by Pavementers Steve Malkmus and Bob Nastonovitch and their UVA buddy David Berman. Pavement nerds might know the Southern spell "Secret Knowledge of Backroads" from a Peel session, but the rest of this cryptic urk, the mystery of which made SM's other band seem like Kardashians by comparison, has been out of print for decades. Berman and the Jews may have gotten higher-fi and easier on the ears, but never more casually charismatic and deeply urban.
Like Tindersticks, Silver Jews have always existed as a bit of a shadowy entity. Alas, their lo-fi noir always lacked the devastating romanticism of Stuart Staples and the boys from Nottingham. Theirs was less a dissonance of the heart than of the eardrum. On these early recordings, dating back a couple of decades, David Berman, Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich are clearly going for that Sonic Youth–sort of aural mayhem, tunelessness as a kind of statement of defiance.
In the early 1990s, "lo-fi" actually meant something interesting. For all the received ideas about songwriting and performance that had been booted aside in the previous 15 years, almost nobody had seriously interrogated the way rock recordings sounded. The understanding was that you were supposed to reproduce, as closely as possible, what a performance in the same room would have sounded like.
Listen to later Silver Jews albums, when David Berman is almost a literary figure, articulating human quandaries with humor and poetry, and it’s easy to forget the group’s ramshackle beginnings as a lo-fi mess-around project for Berman and two members of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. It seems almost quaint now, to look back at that time period, pre-Google, when you couldn’t instantly learn all the facts about a band. The first Silver Jews recordings arrived in record shops back in the early 1990s clouded in mystery, like many records used to do.
Early Times, which collects the Silver Jews' first recordings, traces the beginnings of David Berman's shambling poetics (or is it poetic shambles?). The fidelity might have gotten higher and the twang more pronounced over the years, but the music was always about Berman's ability to be wry, profound, poignant, and playful all at the same time, and the interplay between him and whatever group of friends was backing him at the moment. On the two boombox-recorded EPs included here, Dime Map of the Reef and The Arizona Record, Berman is joined by Pavement drummers/percussionists Steve West and Bob Nastanovich, respectively, and by Stephen Malkmus throughout; not surprisingly, the Pavement influence is strongest on these recordings even though Malkmus and Nastanovich went on to record with Berman several other times (including the Jews' brilliant debut album, Starlite Walker), and this collection could easily be seen as the Silver Jews' version of Westing (By Musket and Sextant).
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.
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.