These days, writer and musician David Berman is getting more mileage out of his bizarre New Yorker-like cartoons than he is from Silver Jews, the band he used to lead.
The Silver Jews–for which Berman was once singer, songwriter, and lead guitarist–were a veritable force in the alternative rock scene of the 1990s. Silver Jews featured a rotating cast of musicians that included members of much more famous bands. As the band grew in popularity, their sound changed from a fuzzy indie-rock vibe to that of a more refined country band. And, as more people asked him about the band’s name, Berman was forced to confront what had once been a spur-of-the-moment joke. Ironically, that name eventually encouraged Berman’s interest in his own Judaism. He began studying Torah every day and, on a trip to Israel, immersed himself in religious life.
Although Berman and co. aren’t currently touring, the new album Early Times collects 14 previously-uncollected songs from the band’s first days. Some of these songs, like “Secret Knowledge of Back Roads” and “I Love the Rights” are unpolished and brash. Coming after half a dozen Silver Jews albums, this new one feels disorienting and funny–kind of like looking at naked baby pictures of one’s grown-up friends. But it’s also unexpectedly cool, seeing a band that turned out great, and knowing that it didn’t always sound quite as seamless.