On Silver Jews’ Early Times (Drag City, out June 19, 2012)
David Berman and Co. (in this iteration, Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, who, if you’re reading this, you probably know from Pavement, or maybe Malkmus and his Jicks) are releasing a one-CD version of their two earliest recordings. The album is called Early Times, also my favorite cheap whiskey, and an obvious nod to such. Also see Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree:
“Lord God what is that?”
“Early Times, Nig,” cried J-bone.
“Early tombs is more like it. Lord honey I know they make that old splo in the bathtub but this here is made in the toilet."
The recordings are rough as all hell. You should know this. If you buy the record (and you should), you will not only know this, you will probably be able to feel this, like a scratchy hangover head. They are also, quite possibly, essential. Which is not to say the songs are all amazing, or even fully formed. They’re more fully formed than most mid-period Guided by Voices tracks, but then again, that isn’t saying so much. They are terribly trebly, and troubling.
The niftiness of taking one’s early recordings, recorded on jam boxes and Walkmans and (maybe?) the odd four-track, and putting them out some twenty-plus years later on the vinyl and the CD and the MP3 and the FLAC (though not cassette!) must feel good to a body. Anyone who has ever been literate and open with themselves and the world at whatever young, green age Dave Berman and Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich were when these songs were recorded gets what was going on here. Hormones are counter mingling with Hesse and perhaps some hallucinogenic heebie-jeebies, and what gives you the strength to carry on? Jamming with your boys on some tunes that maybe only you will ever hear.
The following song titles on the “new” record suggest a band more interested (or able) in coming up with rad song names than recording them cleanly—or coherently, on rare occasion. There’s a reason the Jews’ first recording, I think, might have been called Dime Map of the Reef (collected on Early Times, along with The Arizona Record): These titles suggest a terrain (and later a terroir) that has much more aqueous awesomeness underneath the prickly-peared surface. Further expeditions were to come—this is merely a gringo’s guide to what lay ahead. (“THE Unchained Melody,” furthermore, is genius.)
The Walnut Falcon
SVM F.T. TROOPS
THE Unchained Melody
Secret Knowledge of Back Roads
The War in Apartment 1812
Welcome to the House of the Bats
Bar Scene from Stars Wars
None of the lyrics to these songs are accessible on Google. Many of them, in fact, seem made up on the spot. Berman was still a ways away from writing stuff like “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection / Slowly screwing my way across Europe, they had to make a correction,” from the song “Random Rules,” which sounds to me these days like something Kanye West wishes he would have written. This sounds funny until you realize that West may well be a genius, and collaborates with Bon Iver.
Even here on Early Times, you get glimpses of the vibrant, exuberant wordplay that has defined the best Jews songs. Again, not that you can find said wordplay transcribed anywhere (with the exception of “Secret Knowledge of Back Roads,” which Pavement would go on to “cover”). There’s a lot of Malkmus on here, incidentally. Nastanovich, too, though more in a sort of general noisemaking kind of way. Nastanovich is something of a lightning rod to fans of 1990s-2000s indie rock. Some see a screamer who can’t really play an instrument outside of the odd snare drum/cowbell combination. Me? I see a highly literate guy, big into horse racing, who got to play and yell random shit with his buddies for almost twenty years and see the world and make some damn fine scratch at it besides.
Why is Berman putting out this record now? We can only speculate. He only does e-mail interviews, rarely, and even those can go off into some crazy tangential ravines of Bermaniana: talks about restaurants, or cartooning, or poetry, which are some of his other driving passions. (In a 2005 interview in Pitchfork by Ashford Tucker, Berman had this to say: “Right now, I’m always thinking about this place on Gallatin. Eastside Fish. They have a sign says the ‘crunkest fish in town.’ The crust is fuckin’ out of control.” I happen to love Eastside Fish too, and go there often, especially Monday, when you can get a whiting special of five pieces for like $4.99. The crust, I do believe, is cornmeal, salt and pepper, cayenne. But you’d have no idea what Gallatin was, or Eastside Fish, or just why this is important if you didn’t happen to live, as I do, a mile from the place in Nashville.)
Underground forever: “Smith and Jones Forever,” the last song of the last Silver Jews show.
But, since we’re speculating, maybe he did it for the money. Consider this: Not only did Berman never “sell out,” (playing a couple shows every half-decade doesn’t shift many units) he never even saw fit to buy in to begin with. Now that he’s retired (at least from recording), what’s the harm in floating out some new-old tunes? The album was “cut” some twenty years ago, already in the can if you will, if not even partially recorded there. Why not release it? A true fan of a given band or musician is a margin walker, picking up B-sides and sonic shrapnel whenever and wherever he or she might find it. To them—to me—Early Times is a gift. A gift that, more than likely, will not keep on giving. Berman is many things, but not a backslider.
The Jews’ output, to put it charitably, contains many more snapshots, creatively speaking, than entire collections of work: albums full, collected, curated. But one gets the sense that Berman has learned to embrace and love these early creations, these little bastard children, some half-formed, toe-headed, yet cute, special, lovable in their own way. The man’s always ridden with the random rules, after all.
Really, though, you’d have to ask him.