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The Silver Jews
Alternative Rock

Writer/musician David Berman formed the Silver Jews in 1989 with his friends, guitarist/singer Stephen Malkmus and drummer Bob Nastanovich. The trio performed together as Ectoslavia when they studied at the University of Virginia; after graduation, they moved to New York and shared an apartment. Dubbing themselves the Silver Jews -- the name references the Silver Apples, the Silver Beatles, and slang for blonde-haired Jewish people -- they played noisy, often improvised songs, mostly for the sheer enjoyment they got out of playing together after a hard day's work. At the time, Berman and Malkmus were guards at an art museum and Nastanovich was a bus driver. After work, they would record songs into people's answering machines; this basic idea of friends playing together in a spontaneous way became the Silver Jews' trademark style. Before moving to New York but after finishing his studies, Malkmus founded Pavement with his childhood friend Scott Kannberg. As Pavement's acclaim and visibility grew, the notion arose that the Silver Jews were a "Pavement side-project," despite the fact that Berman's writing, singing, and guitar playing led the band's music. On the band's initial recordings, Berman tried to protect the Jews' individuality, listing Malkmus and Nastanovich under false names, but it backfired when people learned who "Hazel Figurine" and "Bobby N." really were. The notion of the Jews as a side project was only reaffirmed when Nastanovich joined Pavement as a second drummer (to supplement the duties of Gary Young, their then-current, unpredictable drummer) before the release of the group's debut album, Slanted and Enchanted (which was named after a cartoon that Berman created). Steve West, another college friend, played drums for both bands, first for the Silver Jews on Dime Map of the Reef, and on all of Pavement's releases after Watery, Domestic. However, the Jews' sometimes frustrating "Pavement connection" did bring some important attention to the band: Dan Koretsky, founder of the Chicago-based indie label Drag City, met Berman at a Pavement show; when he heard of the Jews' tapes, Koretsky offered to release them. On their first EPs for the label, 1990s Dime Map of the Reef and 1993's The Arizona Record, the band held to their ultra lo-fi aesthetic and recorded both mostly on a walkman. After the release of the EPs, Berman entered a graduate-level writing program at the University of Massachusetts and met like-minded members of local bands, the indie-country hybrid Scud Mountain Boys and New Radiant Storm King. Writing and teaching at the university left Berman time for songwriting; soon, he had enough material for an album, which became 1994's Starlite Walker. The album reunited Berman with Malkmus and Nastanovich (this time listed by their real names in the credits) in the 24-track Easley Recording studios for a more focused, polished take on the Silver Jews' literate, lyrical, country and noise-inspired rock. Along with writing and working with other performers like the War Comet and Silver Palace, Berman recorded the Jews' third album, The Natural Bridge, in the summer of 1996 with members of New Radiant Storm King and Drag City artist/producer Rian Murphy. Originally, Berman planned to record this album with Malkmus and Nastanovich and with the Scud Mountain Boys, but both sessions were scrapped after a few days. The Natural Bridge continued to streamline the Silver Jews' sound and let Berman's rich, abstract lyrics and reflective vocals take center stage. 1998's American Water featured a kind of reunion of the original lineup; Berman is joined by Malkmus, along with new Jews Mike Fellows on bass, Tim Barnes on drums, and Chris Stroffolino on piano. The album's pleasantly ambling feel is highlighted by Berman and Malkmus' guitar and vocal interplay, and has the warm, mellow vibe of the Silver Jews' best work. Though Berman is a reluctant live performer as a musician, he has read his short stories, poems, and lyrics in both the U.S. and the U.K. Heather Phares

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