For a band that never moved in anything but slow, deliberate steps, New York City’s Codeine left an intimidating footprint on the independent music landscape. Conceived in 1989 at the direct intersection of first-wave shoegaze, the nascent post-rock convergence and the turn-of-the-decade indie rock uprising, Codeine crystallized many of these genre’s most recognizable aesthetic traits, draining the blood from the veins of a beast that major labels were set to co-opt in the near future while methodically staking claim to a sound that would soon come to be known as slowcore. Almost confrontationally patient, the style of music Codeine would pioneer—at once desolate and cavernous, glacial and expansive—had a slow-burn effect on modern guitar music. They advanced languidly but deliberately, with just a handful of records produced over a five-year span. But the reverberations are still being felt, the fallout from their heavy, carefully deployed gestures still melting hearts and crushing eardrums in equal measure. Codeine made music that burned like ice when left unguarded against human flesh. They’ve scarred me in the most beautiful way.
All three of Codeine's records were originally released by Sub Pop in the United States, and while they’ve never fallen out-of-print, they’ve also never been given proper due amongst a catalog once heavy on grunge and, for the last decade-plus, leaning mostly toward the realms of indie-pop and folk. So it’s with great satisfaction that the Numero Group, a label best known for their early soul and funk compilations but who are quietly expanding their rock and pop reach, has stepped in to compile these three essential documents while taking the opportunity to append a generous amount of rarities, demos, and live tracks. Like the band themselves, the quality of the material is impressively uniform, while the artwork—lifted from the band’s 1992 “Realize” single—and contextual supplements are reverently preserved and presented. Considering their peerless consistency, it makes sense to package this material together and thus offer listeners a complete picture of one band’s unwavering devotion to its chosen aesthetic.
Led by Stephen Immerwahr—who’s slightly pinched, near-affectless vocals wade calmly amidst the band’s menacing march—but shrewdly devoid of a standout personality, Codeine’s line-up would shift slightly between their two full-length records, though their sound was galvanized from the very first note of their very first release. “D” opens Frigid Stars, the band’s debut and one of the most unique documents in Sub Pop’s illustrious catalog, and it remains probably their best known and most dynamic track. Like a lot of Immerwahr’s lyrics (not to mention song titles), “D” can be hard to parse for concrete meaning, but I struggle to remember another band that so effortlessly conveyed feeling by staring so blankly at life’s everyday heartbreak. “D for effort / D for insight / D because you’re heaven sent” is one of the those lyrics that changes meaning at every angle, yet musically the band leaves little to the imagination, wringing intense pain from each heaving note. John Engle’s guitar channels a resounding amount of emotion through the negative space between each held chord, while original drummer Chris Brokaw creeps like a 400 pound gorilla behind the kit. “See a smile / Make it sad,” Immerwahr sings, further solidifying the duality Codeine would turn into a thesis, and in that sense, “D” may be the quintessential Codeine song.
But that’s not to say they necessarily peaked early. The remainder of Frigid Stars finds the band embracing concision and chiseling their attack into self contained feats of strength. “Pickup Song,” incidentally the band’s first single, epitomizes this efficiency. With just five lines of lyrics, Immerwahr paints the fallout of a breakup in excruciating strokes: “Don’t remember your kiss / Can’t remember what I miss / Thought you were blind, I held your hand / Guess I still don’t understand / Wish I’d never seen your face.” Musically, the band cedes to the confessional—in fact, throughout their history the band consistently and confidently allowed Immerwahr the room to move, despite their muscular abilities. Elsewhere, “New Year’s” wallows in it’s own aching prettiness (“Feel so sad, so bad today“), while “Cave-In” thunders angrily, receding from it’s shoegazing choruses into placid verses wherein Immerwahr outlines the violent dreams that help him cope with an unspecified loss. By album’s end, he seems to have emerged from the turmoil stronger for his efforts, but he’s anything but naive. “When I see the sun / I hope it shines on me / And gives me everything…well almost,” Immerwahr closes, and it’s this sense of tension in even the most beautiful of situations that Codeine thrived on from the beginning.
Codeine seemed to have sprung fully formed, but, like most bands, they workshopped ideas and consistently experimented within their self-imposed limitations. The Barely Real EP, from 1992, mostly followed in the vein of Frigid Stars, but it nevertheless provided a necessary outlet for the band to try out some new ideas. “Realize” is a seamless transition from their debut, and like “New Year’s,” condensed the band’s power into an airtight construct (it too was released as a single). “Barely Real” and “Hard to Find” pull back a bit on the hulking chord progressions, which in turn allows Immerwahr the opportunity to continue his search for closure and commitment, the latter of which leaves little doubt as to his faith in actually accomplishing. And then there’s “W.,” a solo piano piece by David Grubbs of Squirrel Bait and Gastr Del Sol, which would turn up in richer form on their following album but which maintains the original’s dramatic, dynamic structure. On it’s own, the EP is interesting and dare I say playful, but it serves it’s greatest purpose as a transition from the ripped intensity of Frigid Stars to the smothering bleakness of their subsequent work.
This subsequent work turned out to sound the band’s death knell, but they wouldn’t bow out before drowning whatever glimmers of hope shone through on Frigid Stars with a tombstone-definitive document of sadness. So while Frigid Stars features the band’s best standalone tracks and remains the most condensed realization of their potency, it’s Codeine’s final album, The White Birch, which expands on their atmospheric, molasses-slow gait, casting a 43-minute spell of unconscious devastation. Less outwardly dynamic but more textured and laser-focused in it’s overarching structure than its predecessor, The White Birch (which brought new drummer Doug Scharin into the fold) is a suffocating listen that nonetheless radiates casual melodicism and a serene sense of place—probably somewhere beautiful yet vaguely menacing at dusk, a naturally pasteurized yet unpopulated landscape at once welcoming and unforgiving. Codeine were always one of the bands best equipped to turn sorrow into something liberating, and the stark locales conjured by The White Birch are a sanctuary of loneliness that’s somehow fulfilling the further one gets lost in it’s tangled web of emotion.
So while The White Birch feels of a complete piece, moments of singular clarity still manage to emerge from the shadows cast by the band’s downcast aura. “Loss Leader” features perhaps Immerwahr’s most melodic lead vocal, despite enunciating in a tone that could graciously be described as casually conversational. On the other end of the spectrum is album centerpiece “Tom,” wherein Engle’s guitar smothers Immerwahr in an avalanche of feedback and distortion; it’s the furthest afield Codeine ever swerved into outright shoegaze territory, and like the best of the genre, spills over with palpable emotion through the sheer force of Immerwahr’s naked proclamations (“I need a reason to cry…I need a reason to smile“) and the band’s instrumental will. Save for the reappearance of “W.”—now titled “Wird” and featuring spoken word vocals in direct reference to Louisville legends Slint, perhaps Codeine’s only direct contemporaries—the remainder of The White Birch hangs perilously in the near-distance, diffuse with detail yet strikingly lucid from moment to moment. “The world is frozen now / It glitters, sparkles and shines,” Immerwahr hauntingly intones as “Smoking Room” ripples into the darkness, forever calcifying Codeine’s career-long preoccupations while once again offering a faint glimpse of the hope emanating from humanity’s uncertain horizon.
Of the three albums, the Barely Real EP is retrofitted with the most enlightening and vital bonus material. In addition to demo versions of some of each record’s best tracks, we’re also offered the great “Realize” B-side “Broken Hearted Wine;” an unlikely interpretation of the French waltz “A L’Ombre De Nous,” which originally came from a split 7-inch with the early John McEntire (Tortoise) band Bastro; and three fascinating rarities: the thematic-by-numbers but potent “Cracked in Two”, the circular, unrelenting live run-through of early song and stylistic anomaly “Hydroplane” (which Immerwahr introduces as “the song that got us signed to Sub Pop,” which, if true, isn’t all that surprising considering its headlong momentum, which is kind of Wingtip Sloat-by-way-of-the Fall—which is to say, Pavement); and finally, “I Wonder,” an unfinished demo but perhaps the single best unreleased Codeine track, which finds Immerwahr sitting solo, accompanied only by guitar, conducting a dialogue of perseverance to and for himself (“We got to live before we’re old and grey / I want to live…so bad“).
There are fewer undiscovered highlights amongst the bonus tracks on the expanded full-lengths, but there are worthwhile additions to be found. Across the two discs you’ll find the requisite early versions of familiar album tracks, alongside a live Peel Session featuring the unreleased “Sure Looks That Way,” demos of rare early tracks such as the punk-infused “Skeletons,” the proto-Silver Jews drink-a-along “Corner Store,” the brief, pastoral “Summer Dresses” and, for good measure, a thematically applicable cover of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere.” Among other qualities, this material is interesting in that it finally evidences some of the band’s outlying influences, which are often times surprising in light of their grave-faced demeanor.
But on record, Codeine were never anything but persistent in their vision. And their subsequent influence is likewise difficult to overstate. Lines can be drawn to such navel-gazing descendants as Low, Scharin’s subsequent band June of 44, the For Carnation, Shipping News and Red House Painters, among others, while Slint must have had at least subliminal exposure to Frigid Stars in 1990 as they would go on to evolve from the Big Black industrial grind of Tweez to the pioneering post-rock of Spiderland in just over a year’s time. But in the end, Codeine remain a genre of one, a lumbering titan of hypnotic interplay and soulful self-interrogation, universal in their inward, sad-eyed gaze, but ultimately inspiring in their unwavering resolve. [SC]