With minimal fanfare, Drag City Records released “Early Times” on Tuesday, an album that compiles the first official recordings by cult -favorite indie rock group Silver Jews. The group was fronted by David Berman, one of the most gifted lyricists of the last two decades, and also often featured his University of Virginia college buddy Stephen Malkmus, himself arguably the definitive ’90s indie icon as frontman of Pavement.
The songs on “Early Times” are playful, fragmented and of such low fidelity that it sounds like they were recorded on a walkman. (They were.) Dig through the muck and there are definite hints of the greatness that would come later on albums such as “American Water” and “Tanglewood Numbers.” But to say this is for diehards only would be fair and accurate. That there are Silver Jews fans that aren’t diehards has always been somewhat puzzling — Berman’s lyrics are the kind you want to spend days, months, years dissecting and absorbing.
Original Silver Jews drummer Bob Nastanovich (also of Pavement) talked to Grantland at length about the new-old album, with plenty of excellent stories about the band’s dynamic in its earliest incarnation. Ever since Berman announced the end of the band nearly three and a half years ago, he has kept a low profile. He has a reputation as press-avoidant, but when I spoke with him at length in 2008, that charge seemed unfounded. I was curious about how he felt about his earliest, long-out-of-print material being re-released, and he responded to an e-mail with a typically Berman response, as follows:
As a student and aficianado of all things tertiary, i was charmed to realize that the 20th anniversary of these third-rate recordings fell so close to the 40th anniversary of the third-rate burglary that brought down the Nixon presidency.
For a long time I have been reluctant to re-release these recordings; ever since a spectacularly inept drag city intern accidentally recorded over the only copy of what I consider to be the finest work we ever did, only days after we had submitted our debut to the label. Initially I thought only four minutes had been destroyed. When I later heard that 18 and a half minutes were missing, I blew my stack. The erased tape is now preserved in a climate-controlled vault at Drag City in case a future technological development allows for restoration of the missing audio.
In the meantime we are putting out the whirrs and scuzzy clatter that preceded and followed our lost masterpiece to serve as an insulting gesture directed at the putrid legacy of Lewis Powell and the foul pig-people that work at the United States Chamber of Commerce.