Review : Silver Jews - Early Times
PitchforkIn 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. Then a string of bands started deliberately doing recording "wrong," or at least asking to what, exactly, "fidelity" in music was supposed to be. Nobody did it wronger-on-purpose than Silver Jews, whose first two EPs-- 1992's Dime Map of the Reef and 1993's The Arizona Record--were pile-ups of cheap cassette wobble and flaws, song fragments, sloppy jams, and flubbed notes, with something cracked but wonderfully original radiating from within them.
The rumor, in 1992, was that this ridiculously named band was actually Pavement under a pseudonym. Dime Map of the Reef came out about a month after Slanted and Enchanted, on the label that had put out some of Pavement's earlier records, and one of the voices on it clearly belonged to one of the Pavement guys; it was obvious! (Fine, laugh. We didn't have Google back then.) Silver Jews weren't Pavement, but for a while the two bands shared singer/guitarist Stephen Malkmus and drummer Bob Nastanovich, and Pavement's early repertoire included "Secret Knowledge of Backroads" and "West S", both of which appear here. (Malkmus has even played the latter solo.)
It became evident with time that Silver Jews were very much singer/guitarist David Berman's band. They had the same progenitor as Pavement (University of Virginia band Ectoslavia), and a pretty similar knack for knotty riffs; both bands had obviously listened to the Fall a lot at an impressionable age. But Berman maybe cared a little less about tunes than Malkmus, and a little more about language. He, in fact, was the one who had come up with the phrase "slanted and enchanted."...full text
ThelineofbestfitNot even the tentative four-track forays of Slanted and Enchanted could prepare the listener for the lo-fi japery displayed on Early Times – a compilation of the first two releases from Silver Jews: David Berman, Tennessee’s answer to Leonard Cohen, and his college buddies SM (for -tephen -alkmus) and Bob Nastanovich. Loose, sloppy and noisy, these fourteen songs were recorded on Tascams and answering machines at the start of the ’90s – 20 years ago, somehow – and sound like what they are: three bookish guys with trendy record collections dicking around. This, by the way, is a good thing.
The first five tunes come from the band’s debut EP, Dime Map of the Reef, and they’re as scrappy as you’d expect; much like the EPs gathered on P*vement’s Westing (By Musket and Sextant) compilation, there are fragments of songs and conversations, recorded at the sort of fidelity that would have any self-respecting record producer leaping from the nearest window. Tracks like ‘Canada’ and ‘September 1999′ would be anthems if they weren’t smothered in fuzz and graced with some terrible, terrible drumming. And yet, it works: even at this foetal stage of their career, the components were all kinda in place – David Berman’s commanding drone, some twisted guitar lines (check the charging finale ‘THE Unchained Melody’, which fades out just as the vocals begin), and what few lyrics that can be discerned are gold (“All the new wave girls are wearing cowboy boots” observes Malkmus on ‘Canada’).
The rest of the balance is made up by The Arizona Record - a ten-song mini-album from 1991 on which the songwriting exponentially improves as the fidelity gets worse, but there’s charm aplenty to be found here. Berman and Malkmus trade lines on opener ‘Secret Knowledge of Backroads’ – once attempted by SMalkmus’s other band for a 1992 Peel session – which also happens to be the most complete-sounding thing here. It’s even got a chorus and everything. The detuned strums of ‘The War in Apartment 1812′ (where even the count-in is out of time) pre-empt ‘Shady Lane’, ‘Welcome to the House of the Bats’ might be a knowing nod to the New Zealand band beloved of Smalkmus, while the goofy ‘Jackson Nightz’ is a nifty little slack anthem – “I CAN’T FUCK! I CAN’T FUCK! TOUGH LUCK!” – which is actually improved by a recording error thirty seconds in, where a botched overdub replaces half a verse. Yet unlike, say, Guided By Voices, the songcraft doesn’t quite keep you listening through the haphazard arrangement, and the mistakes seem less like endearing accidents than self-conscious first-takes....full text
AmericansongwriterSimpler 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....full text
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