Released: Sunday 17 June 2012
Silver Jews began life sometime around 1989, consisting of singer/songwriter Dave Berman along with his two friends Bob Nastanovich and Stephen Malkmus. If you're new to Silver Jews, chances are you'll still recognise those last two names as members of indie-rock royalty Pavement.
When Silver Jews started they were kind of considered a Pavement side-project but that's far from fair. Silver Jews were always Berman's band and he was the only constant member between their inception and their final album, 2008s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. Silver Jews flitted between lo-fi indie-rock, alt-country and Velvet's-esque rock 'n' roll.
Their finest hour, arguably, came with 1998s majestic American Water album. It remains a witty, intelligent and frequently impressive album and as fine a piece of art as anything by Pavement. Malkmus sings and duets on a fair amount of the songs he appears on but it's the relationship between his performance and Berman's which drives many of the bands finest moments.
At the centre of Silver Jews' brilliance lies Berman's superb songwriting. Berman combined Lou Reed cool with tales of life, love and mortality worthy of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy or Bill Callahan in his Smog guise. He made one of the most genuinely underrated indie-rock albums of the 90s in American Water and one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful alt-country/indie records you could hope to hear in 2001s Bright Flight. The man is a certifiable genius and I can't recommend his band enough.
However, if you are new to Silver Jews I wouldn't recommend you start here. Early Times consists of very early and extremely lo-fi recordings by the Jews three founding members and has 'fan only' written all over it (metaphorically speaking). The recordings are taken from Dime Map of the Reef and The Arizona Record which have been long out of print. It's nice to be able to finally hear these recordings but those expecting a kind of unreleased best-album-ever affair will be disappointed.
The compilation is, however, a revealing glimpse into the band's formative stages; some of the songs bear a passing resemblance to the kind of material which turned up on 1994 debut Starlight Walker. There are glimpses of the genius that was to come too; the melodies and lyrics hidden beneath the four-track fuzz of 'Secret Knowledge of Back Roads' for instance. There's definitely something nice about hearing Malkmus and Berman in such intimate recordings too, but ultimately this is a compilation for completists.
Go and buy all the Silver Jews albums and the Tennessee EP (because it's ace!) and then when you're utterly in love with their whiskey-soaked, melancholic sound, go and get Early Times.