Not 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.
Early Times is definitely one for Berman and Malkmus completists, and those with only a passing interest in lo-fi musings may not quite be able to penetrate its layers of hiss. As a document of a band at the nascent stages of their career, it’s fascinating; as an introduction to the weird world of David Berman – whose presence here seems strangely muted in favour of his befringed bandmate – you’d best look elsewhere. However, in an age where everyone and their mums are making shiny records in their bedroom, this (along with the recent reissue of Lou Barlow’s fantastic Weed Forestin’) gives you a pretty interesting snapshot of what home-recording really means.