Silver Jews – Early Times

This year I gave my first ever 10/10 review for a new album, to UK band Tigercats’ debut Isle of Dogs. This year also marks my first ever 0/10 which goes to this appalling collection of cobbled together band practices from cult US act Silver Jews, which disbanded in 2009.

For those that don’t know about the band, they started as a trio in 1990 of David Berman and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastonovich. Berman remained the only constant member of the band that later also included his wife Cassie, who played bass.

We saw them live in 2008 at Explosions in the Sky’s ATP Festival and they were one of the highlights. Mixing Americana and indie rock the music was enthralling, the lyrics clever and in Berman they had one of music’s most engaging and witty frontmen.

So why is this release of their early work, featuring Berman, Malkmus and Nastonovich so appalling and deserving of such a low score. For a start it’s recorded on boombox mics making the production value non-existent and most of it pretty much inaudible. Sure lo-fi can work, just look at the Mountain Goats John Darnielle’s early boom box releases. But this worked for Darnielle because the home made amateur feel brought out the intimacy in his songwriting, vocals and simple guitar playing. For this release the lo-fi recording just makes it unbearable to listen to.

What has been released here is essentially a series of  bad band practices, full of background giggles, poor playing and pretty much no artistic merit. The songs here were originally released on the Dime Ma of the Reef 7” and 12’EP the Arizona Record. They are essentially barely audible pieces of drivel that surely even the most ardent Silver Jews fan will struggle to listen to. When you can just about make out a tune it sounds a little like early Pavement with bad drumming.

What angers me most  about this release is that some people may actually waste their money on it. Please, I implore you do not. This is not a lovely curio from the past, this is about someone, somewhere, trying to release, quite frankly, any old shit and hoping it sticks to someone. Well, no siree, this brown stuff will not stick with this website.

The press release tells us that there may be an additional release of “rare and unreleased” early recordings in the near future. On this evidence I hope that is a joke.


by Joe Lepper



  1. Releases like this are surely only ever for ardent completionsts. I have similar fuzzy, tinny rehearsal room recordings by American Music Club, Pavement, Lambchop, Smashing Pumpkins and others and while they rarely – bar the odd gem – warrant heavy rotation, they are simply released as a service to diehard fans and collected by same. I guess these people will buy this CD anyway and your review will serve as fair warning to the potential ‘casual’ listener who was considering starting thier Silver Jews collection here. I’m interested, if a similar collection of recordings were to be released by one of your all-time favourite artists, one who you loved enough to want to hear every last jame and noodle, would you have given it a higher mark? NB: I’m not a Silver Jews fan (nor a hater, I only know a couple of their songs), I’m just interested in the philosophy behind this review.

  2. I’ve got a few of those early rehearsal and demos of bands and know what you mean, but this was so devoid of any artistic merit I thought I’d warn people,even ardent fans who can accept the lack of any actual songs or notable musicianship or that Bob bloke from Pavement essentially falling onto a drum kit. You can barely make out any actual music most of the time. It’s probably the worst example of this kind of thing I’ve ever heard. They could have put a bit more effort into sorting out the sound quality even a tad. Sure completists will no doubt still buy this, but will they ever listen to it or shake off that nagging feeling that they’ve been cheated?

    There’s a collection of early mountain goat recordings coming out later this year that will test my eardrums…but as I mentioned in the review re the Mountain Goats, sometimes lo fi can work in an artist’s favour.

  3. Many have come to the same conclusion as you after a cursory listen of this era of material. Granted, things aren’t helped by the tracklisting decided on here. As a record in its own right, The Arizona Record is largely dismissed, but I find it massiveley inspiring and underrated. Yes, this is a bunch of ebullient, college-cocky kids, jockeying for improvisation time on the Mic, but this happens to be, in my opinion, two of Contemporary American music’s greatest living songwriters in Berman and Malkmus, so deserves more than for you to dismiss it some half-assed band practice. ‘Secret Knowledge of Backroads’ is an incredibly atmospheric and devastating song in its own right, far superior to the fleshed-out but plodding Pavement Peel Session version that features on Slanted & Enchanted ‘Luxe & Reduxe’. When heard as the Arizona Record’s opener as intended, it enables a different perspective on the swaying, shimmering heat of songs like ‘The Wild Palms’ as well as the rest of this material. ‘Bar Scene From Star Wars’ is an eye-wateringly soporific ditty leaving you feeling like you’ve got a head full of bong smoke, and with that title just as hilarious to boot. Yes, some songs snap in and out of existence as though someone accidentally pressed stop on the Boom Box, but given a few listens, these songs are redolent and as catchy as anything from Pavement’s early EPs, and if you can make them out, Berman’s improvisations pay dividends as always. These are rougher than any self-proclaimed Lo-Fi, or demos you’re likely to hear, but its that lack of abandon, and enthusiasm for just rattling out rock songs in a garage that makes this material thrilling and indespensible to enthusiasts of early 90s Indie Rock. Beard-scratching Americana this ain’t, but from these inauspicious beginnings came some of the greatest in that trade. Similarly Bill Callahan was born out of such scratchy Drag City experimentation. Well worth a listen if you’re a fan of early Daniel Johnston or Smog, as well as latter day Joos.

  4. Great comment Chester….do you fancy writing for us from time to time? You clearly know your indie rock onions and we are always keen to showcase good writers, publish their features and send review CDs to. If interested drop us an email at

  5. Chester’s comment is a better review than the actual review. I agree — this stuff is thrilling and inspired.

  6. It’s a review, but not better just because you agree with it. Early Silver Jews were complete dung in my opinion and this poorly put together album chronicles that time. If you find it thrilling and inspired then great, if you find it to be three blokes arsing around and producing little of value then that is also fine. We cater for all tastes here.

    I think the reputation of so called greats of indie rock can cloud people’s judgement at times.

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