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. The musician credits on the sleeve of the “Dime Map of the Reef” 7” read Bobby N, Hazel Figurine and D.C. Berman, but one voice was clearly that of Malkmus, already an indie darling. That led to the persistent talk that Silver Jews was a Pavement side project. And, in a way, it was, only one featuring just two of them, with a key collaborator.
On the early recordings, the “Dime Map of the Reef” 7” (1990) and The Arizona Record 10” (1993), collected now as Early Times, it’s the three playing around with noise and primitive songs, some quite Pavement-ish (in the early, Slay Tracks way) and others giving hints of the storytelling that would become Silver Jews’ future when it became a full-band David Berman project, a few years later.
On their first proper LP, 1994’s Starlite Walker, Berman’s songwriting is clearly at the front, albeit with Malkmus and Nastanovich shouting along, either like children or drunks. In these Early Times, though, that mostly isn’t true, and it feels like a free-for-all. Sometimes they’re enjoying the repetition of words, or in the way it sounds for them to be rambling words while a weird guitar sound plays (like that scratching sound in “September 1999”. Other times it’s like a laugh at the idea that they’re playing “rock music”. “Jackson Nightz” is like a parody of a classic-rock anthem, with its talk of cars and sex (“tough luck / can’t fuck”).
It’s easy to hear “Welcome to the House of the Bats” as a joke Alice Cooper song. It has a stupid , dumbed-down Beach Boys melody, one you couldn’t take if it was played clean and straight, away from the fuzz of the basement. At one point it shifts into a spoken bit about a Remington sculpture they found and want to find out if it’s real – a story that could be real or not (maybe?). “SVM F.T. Troops” seems to tell a historical tale, but not really. Malkmus cracks up laughing partway through, right before the lyric “Tel Aviv / do you believe / your friends are coming / Greensleeves.” A goof on international politics or just a who gives a f**k? While messing around like this, they introduce some classic Silver Jews themes, or rather imagery: espionage, the Wild West, all-American loneliness.
1990-1994 was a different time. I’m not sure this would sound all that special if the same music was created today. Now, purposeful low fidelity so often seems like an affectation or imitation of bands from the past. In the ‘90s “lo fi” seemed an aesthetic motion and a philosophic one – a stance against professionalism and its corporate, conformist connotations. Aesthetically, the boom-box sound elevates the songs’ weirdness and mystery. Regardless of what others say, it’s not about “real”-ness per se. These songs are not trying to be real in that way, but in fact mock that very notion, of a song speaking plainly of some “authentic” reality.
Twenty years later, this music still sounds surprising, something lo-fi groups today can’t easily accomplish, while also sounding like just some dudes goofing around for fun (Malkmus interviewed on YouTube: “It’s just three guys in a basement.”) Early Times might serve mainly as a reminder to current young bands that there’s value in screwing around for the heck of it.