In 2009, at the height of their acclaim and popularity, David Berman buried his Silver Jews 333 feet beneath Tennessee. Three years on, after little from the man himself, Drag City have excavated his Silver beginnings, sidling the contentious Dime Map of the Reef and The Arizona Record EPs up against one another for Early Times. These releases have been tricky to get one’s hands on, and even harder to get-into since Berman erased certain indelible associations to a certain other band by relieving Bob Nastanovich and Stephen Malkmus of their musical duties during sessions for his second full length and name-making The Natural Bridge.
This material has long divided even hardcore Silver Jews fans, the majority of whom look upon it as little more than a lark, and not — as those who might describe themselves as geeks would say — canon. “Frivolous” is a tempting conclusion to come to after only a cursory listen, and not helped by the chronological tracklisting decided upon here, but the loss of anyone sonically myopic enough to be incapable of listening through the hiss. Opening with Dime Map of
the Reef‘s hilariously absurd “Canada,” it’s admittedly difficult to see this as anything other than ebullient, college-cocky kids, emboldened by cheap beer, jostling for improvisation time on the mic — Nastanovich literally hammering away on trash — but with Berman and Malkmus to fill in the blanks, this collection deserves more than to be dismissed as some half-assed band practice.
The aptly titled “Secret Knowledge of Backroads,” far superior to that of the fleshed-out but ultimately uninspired and plodding Peel Session version that Malkmus brandishes on Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe, is as atmospheric and mordant as The Natural Bridge‘s most portentous moments, and a rain-mottled window into this collection as a whole. Heard as intended — as The Arizona Record‘s opener — an entirely different perspective on future stops forms. False starts like “Jackson Nightz” (which snaps in and out of existence as though someone tripped over the boombox)and “Can’t Trust It To Remain” (which you can’t trust to remain beyond its 40 seconds) are precious hints at things to come, and make sense in light of the shimmering heat of the swaying “The Wild Palms,” whose cymbals spit as though smelting with every hit, while the eye-wateringly soporific ditty “Bar Scene From Star Wars,” is a somewhat unexpected head full of bong smoke, and ironically more significant than such an experience or title might suggest.
Rougher than anything recorded with the conceit of professing to be lo-fi, or any bootlegs you may have been burned by, Early Times pays dividends to those who’ve weathered the storm of Daniel Johnston’s 1980s tapes, and exhibits a similarly thrilling spontaneity and artistic purity in its almost oblivious execution, and is indispensable to amateur Indie Rock historians. Chin-scratching Alternative this ain’t, but from such inauspicious beginnings came the greatest in the trade.
Smog – Forgotten Foundation
Pavement – Westing (By Musket & Sextant)
Daniel Johnston – Retired Boxer