Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Record Review: Silver Jews - Early Times

It’s only appropriate that a sloppy, occasionally incoherent collection of early Silver Jews rarities should be called Early Times. It’s no secret at this point that David Berman is a drinker. In fact, one of the most characteristic lyrics of Berman’s career showed up in the second song on the very first Silver Jews full-length: “In 27 years I’ve drunk fifty thousand beers/ And they just wash against me like the sea into a pier.” And from there we got five more albums of offhand insight and carefully calibrated turns-of-wisdom, quality and coherence never mutually exclusive, with each not coincidentally coinciding with Berman’s concurrent blood alcohol level. Early on, this inspiration manifested not unlike a drunk’s unconscious epiphanies, with clumsy yet vivid detailing and at random, unexpected intervals. They’d settle into a kind of twilit, hungover haze by the time the band’s first album dropped in 1994, but the rambling, often unintelligible jams they would pour out during their first couple of years, including the two EPs collected on Early Times, retain a charm exclusive to the early ‘90s lo-fi scene, where the Jews shared tape decks and ‘zine space with the likes of Pavement, Sebadoh, Wingtip Sloat and the like.

Pavement, in particular, would loom large over the band’s formative years. Sharing two members of the group who just months prior released the landmark Slanted and Enchanted, the Jews were often pigeonholed as a side project or, in some cases, a tanked alter-ego of Pavement themselves. And there’s plenty of Stephen Malkmus harmonies and piss-take Bob Nastanovich percussion in evidence here to perpetuate the theories. But Berman was the constant, the leader and voice of growing maturation even after Malkmus and Nastanovich left for the bright lights of mid-‘90s indie fame. But this initial trio would prove to be one of the band’s most endearing incarnations, even if the amount of standalone great songs they would produce is slim compared to the band’s late ‘90s peak.

The 1992 Dime Map of the Reef 7-inch, the first record to bear the Silver Jews name, is understandably slight if occasionally promising, fueled by brown liquor and the simultaneous rush of excitement and anxiety that accompanies three dudes with a couple of riffs, a nicked melody and the unique recording opportunities afforded by four-track technology. Opener “Canada” evidences Pavement’s similar obsession with the Fall, repeating the name of the title country in an off-key salute as the trio bash out a primitive pop tune beneath. “The Walnut Falcon” is a knotty mix of tense guitar, Berman’s monotone verbiage and Malkmus’s more excitable, eternally cracked vox. Like a lot of early Jews tracks, it’s more of a sketch than a proper song. The next track, “SVM F.T. Troops,” is a notable attempt at long-form structure, though Berman can’t help but literally crack-up halfway though, as if an attempt at ambition at this juncture is inherently ironic. And speaking of irony, “The Unchained Melody” is less Righteous Brothers than Bosom Buddies, with Malkmus bluntly intoning, “The soap opera fags, the soap opera fags/ I met them last night, I met them last night/ They were all right, alright.”

The Arizona Record, from the following year, is where the band began to reconcile their intake with their output, so to speak. It begins with probably the great early Silver Jews song, “Secret Knowledge of Backroads,” a heart-swelling duet between Berman and Malkmus wherein they casually harmonize their way between lucid imagery (“Price the sword, the ancient craft/ I’m so bored with your ancient craft, your ancient laughs”) and deeply felt rumination (“But I know what I want/ I know it’s behind me/ Behind my western mind/ And it’s so new, it’s so new”). Besides being perhaps the first hint at something greater for these guys, it’s also further evidence that fidelity is in no way proportional to quality. “West S” is the other obvious standout, a Malkmus-led strummer complete with stream of consciousness illusions and something like a yodeled interlude. Elsewhere, “I Love the Rights” bridges the gap between rant and jam, while “Jackson Nightz” exploits their recording set-up, switching haphazardly between different takes like a fan splicing live performance tapes together. For the most part, however, it’s the small details—the tactile, tossed-off image, the burr of Berman’s deepening voice, the unexpected melodicism of the band’s most potent weapon, the Malkmus bridge—rather than individual songs which leave an impression.

It wouldn’t be long before the band brought a more mature sonic accord to accompany their many restless stylistic gestures. By the time of their debut LP, Starlite Walker, the Silver Jews would feel like a fully formed entity, one that would stand in the top tier of independent rock bands for at least the next decade. In that sense, these EPs function exactly as early artistic documents should, as workshops for ideas and methods that the artist intends to build upon in the future. But there’s something to be said for uninhibited displays of personality and intuitive attempts at transcendence, an end goal that Berman and company would continually stumble upon as they proceeded. Some prophetic examples of talent trumping technique are in evidence on Early Times, and this music likewise endures like the revelations of a particularly inebriated night out, all half-remembered details, passionate acts of desire and the unintended yet illuminating consequences which inspire us to shake off the hangover and do it all over again. [SC]

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