Day Forty-One: Codeine – Frigid Stars LP

Numero Group ■ 201.1
(Originally released on Sub Pop)
Released August, 1990
This compilation released June 19, 2012
Produced by Mike McMackin and Codeine

Side One: Side Two:
  1. D
  2. Gravel Bed
  3. Pickup Song
  4. 3 Angels
  5. New Year’s
  1. Second Chance
  2. Cave-In
  3. Cigarette Machine
  4. Old Things
  5. Pea

Around the time I moved out of my last home, I realized that I was moving somewhere that record stores were not going to be anything like convenient (and so they aren’t–it’s at least an hour’s drive to find new records). So, with a measure of money in hand (that which I thought I could spare), I decided to “clean house” on my desired purchases at the then-local stores. While I was, in majority, picking up CDs I’d been eyeing for sometime, I also decided that the temptation of the Codeine reissues was just too great. I asked the owner of CD Alley in Chapel Hill (whose band may show up here later, if I continue intermittent reviews of 7″s) if he had a stance, and he said unfortunately he had not personally gone in the direction of Codeine, and had never heard one singled out. I’ve worked enough retail that, considering they were five or ten minutes from closing, I decided to just grit my teeth and grab one. Frigid Stars LP was the first album, so it seemed like a logical starting point for me as well.

If you pick any of these Codeine reissues up, in the literal sense, you immediately notice how thick they are: about that of a triple LP of decent weight vinyl. You can actually see the vertical fold on the front cover where it opens, rather than simply folding directly at the spine. Alongside that, an expanded CD is included with them that assembles demos and assorted other tracks not originally included. Add in the fact that it’s also an expanded LP (with a whole second platter that is composed of the bonus material on the CD), and it’s just too darn tempting. Inside you even find full, 12×12″ stapled booklets of liner notes: history, essays, recording and personnel notes–all the stuff I’d want, or close enough to it. I have a longtime policy of thinking there must be something to an album that receives treatment like this but doesn’t have the kind of visibility that tells you that maybe it’s just something they think a whole ton of people will re-buy because a whole ton cubed bought it in the first place. So far, this has been an extremely successful approach to take. 

I’m not sure what told me to check out Codeine, though. Maybe there was a comment about how good they were in something I read, or maybe their name came up in connection with Galaxie 500, who I was rather into the last year or so. Maybe it was my intrigued object-lust for the records when I saw how they were put together (I’m not above being suckered in by a well-made record package or sleeve art or the like). Whatever it was, I knew nothing of them at all, other than genre designations that had only vague meaning at most, which was in no way a method of understanding what they were or sounded like.

I do have to add that I find it frustrating when bands name albums things like Frigid Stars LP. Is that a designator, because this is an LP? Is it part of the actual title? If it is, is there some particular need for it to be? I’ve settled on the same thing as everyone else, I guess: the art says “LP” at the end, so we treat it as part of the title. 

“D” starts the album and is kind of jarring in its way: one big beat allowed to hang around followed by a slowly single-picked guitar, repeated, then lethargic movement forward into Stephen Immerwahr’s rather somber and morose vocals, listing what “D” is for–“‘D’ for effort/’D’ for intent/’D’ because you pay the rent…” The pacing is incredibly deliberate, but for his voice, you might think this was intended to be played at 45rpm, though none of the instruments have the stretched distortion of a recording played back too slowly. The guitars in particular–as well as a splash cymbal that is allowed an unusually rapid beat for the rest of the song–begin to accelerate, their sound no longer spaced out, adding up to a wave of noise as Immerwahr sings the chorus with more need. But when we come back to the verse (“‘D’ for dishes/’F’ for floors/Can’t make the grade anymore”), it is still that palpably slowed sound, which allegedly left drummer Orestes Dellatore of Bitch Magnet (with whom they recorded their first version of “Pea”) swinging at cymbals without hitting them a few times for each hit before actually reaching them, just to keep himself from speeding up.

“Gravel Bed” does not pick up the pace, but it does shift the feel of it: at its onset, distorted guitar chords attempting to push at the boundaries of the song’s speed are sewn into place with a thumping bass’s insistent authority, those loud, separated and severely spaced drums no longer a stitch themselves, just a beacon every seven beats (!) to keep things from floating off too far. Where “D” was like a severely slowed curiosity, “Gravel Bed” acts more as a hanging weight, or a weary but determined trudge onward under such a weight. It crescendos in a fashion not unlike “D”, but it actually continues to build upward, and when it clarifies out to the verse’s sound again, it’s less like the aftermath of a crashed down wave whose power dissipates into a more tranquil sensibility, and more like the destructive aftermath of one, shifting the focus from the fact that it is gone to the fact that it indeed was there in the first place and left a skeleton of whatever stood beneath it. 

The beginning of “Pickup Song” is a rapid (for this album, at least) descending set of notes that ends on a high note, turned to clean and minor but chorded guitar. “Don’t remember/Your kiss/Can’t remember/What I miss” is all Immerwahr gets out before a sliding, monolithic bassline from Immerwahr himself carries in the full band and a huge mountain of sound. Now drowned in reverberating bass, constantly splashing cymbal, and a louder, more constant sort of variation on the initial chords, he manages to sing only “Thought you were blind I held your hand/Guess I still don’t understand”, before he lets the bass do the talking for him, playing what amounts to the lead on it. “Wish I’d never seen your face” he sings, and a soured, downward sliding note drops it all off to a final chord. The way that last line comes in isolation, the way the note sours after it, and the final chord–one of the best song endings I can think of.

Originally a B-Side to “Pickup Song”, but included in the U.S. issues of the album,¹ “3 Angels” is a percussive extension of the sound they established on the previous sides: without being so distinct a force, the bass is present but more monotone and rhythmic, the enormous, cold and spacious snare hits are more constant, and even the intro is composed of drums pulling the sound into place. Ever-droning vocally, Immerwahr momentarily escapes that, with a chorus that is knowingly melodic, and somewhat strangely emphasized: “Take a wa-alk…” he sings a good bit higher than normal, but “’round the block” starts at an off-beta, as if the absent “a” from “around” was, itself, an omitted vocal beat, giving a peculiar shape to the whole thing, like two different tunes Frankensteined together. It’s an appealing effect, though it may not sound like it, as it fits brilliantly with the sensibilities of the music Codeine assembled.

“New Year’s” is the written work of Sooyoung Park and Lexi Mitchell of Codeine associates and contemporaries Seam, and, while they work it into their style–particularly pace, of course–it is clearly the work of different writers. Clean guitar and bass with a sort of meager line of hope are accented by all-tom drumming on the verse, light ride-to-splash cymbal on the chorus’s more pop-developed bassline. The thump of the drums returns with the verse, the guitars almost fragile, fragments of the song that the bass, drums and Stephen’s voice all have a complete grasp on. It’s certainly one of the cheerier songs on the album–in tone, at least, as the lyrics are not overly cheerful, certainly not much more than most of the album. It’s particularly worth hearing Stephen’s lead on the bass after the second chorus, working with the guitars to sound like the culmination of an extended song’s emotional journey, despite the 3:34 runtime.

Oceanic rumblings and squalls of distortion mark the opening of Side Two and “Second Chance”: “I miss your smile/It’s been a while” Stephen begins to repeat, as the distortion creeps around the edges of everything, Immerwahr adds a pounding low-end piano note to the end of his vocal lines that often matches his bass, until he begins to repeat “It’s been a while” in isolation, which he follows with a pleasingly piano melody that is still low, but higher than previous notes. The way the distortion–likely the work of Chris Brokaw’s overdubbed second guitar, as opposed to Jeremy Engle’s initial one–floats around everything without ever fading is like a suspension that Immerwahr’s parts sit in, which are only expanded by the return to the initial two lines, repeated again together three times and then just the latter through to the end, as his bass gets a chance to slide momentarily again.

Inspiring the name of hardcore-turned-space-rock-turned-back-into-hardcore band of the same name, “Cave-In” is probably the most “pop” song Codeine turns in for the album from their own pens. Sounds that would later feel completely appropriate in the guitar-laden sounds of Cerberus Shoal-style post rock bands² a couple of years later. Completely in contrast to this, Immerwahr sings quietly: “Last night I dreamt your face/The skin was falling off/The flesh was turning grey…” And then a wall of guitar, bass and drums crashes down thunderously, but now Immerwahr’s voice now turns high and melodic: “This is a cave-in/I said I’d stay/Cave-in…/Said I’d stay”. The loud-quiet-loud approach is also not foreign to the advent of post rock in the latter half of the same decade (though of course Slint had their own hand in that); the verses return to the hushed, isolated guitar and voice sound, while the chorus continues its dramatic and loud sound–a perfectly little squeak coming at its second occurrence, just a little peep of feedback after Stephen sings “This is a cave-in” again. It’s fascinating how the verses are instrumentally most pretty and light despite his voice, while his voice hits the same ground over the crushing fall of the chorus’s instrumental power.

There’s a certain guitar sound that works best when played with the hesitant slowing of single notes picked at a gradually decreasing speed, that, in my mind, always implies a sort of warning of what is to come, and it opens “Cigarette Machine”, bass notes ringing from each first beat, hinting and hinting that an explosion or a fire will follow, there’s a pause as  they ring–and then the guitars are hushed and clean, hi-hat-based beat and spoken words from Immerwahr. It’s a fantastic anticlimax that is both surprising and completely appropriate. There’s a moment of confusion that quickly becomes, “Ah, of course.” When the pounding bass, drums, and distorted guitar burst out of it, filled with the weight of tension built then held, it’s entirely appropriate for it to peter out with the tension of that opening–which again leads instead to quiet and pleasant sounds.

“Old Things” sounds almost like exactly that; the guitars fade in on a wave of feedback, but have the slightest twinge of twang, a patina that ages the sound before it is even heard. There is the echo of the past in them–not some distinct period of rock history, though it’s certainly a musical echo–the sound of a sound bottled and corked and released at the right time. “Walk, just walk away”, Immerwahr sings melodiously, but with lazed acceptance, and his rumbling distorted bass follows, not suddenly infusing the song with aggression, but furthering the feel of the song’s tone in the low end it has previously neglected. It dissolves into splinters of feedback and distortion, one guitar–Engle’s–questioningly pokes in, tired, drifting, deliberate but wispy, and lays the ground out for the song to pick itself back up, as if it fell and only mechanically needed to rise: not shamed, not hurt, just shrugging and walking forward.

With the multitude of recordings of “Pea” that wandered around–Sooyoung Park’s first band, Bitch Magnet, who played a part in getting Codeine signed, actually recorded one of the first commercially released versions with Immerwahr and Engle singing and playing on it, leading to the aforementioned image of Orestes Dellatore’s feinting hits–the version that appears here is the one that was tacked onto the end of the U.S. CD release of Frigid Stars LP. At first glance, it sounds as though it is the acoustic version that appeared on the European CD: Immerwahr sings to his own guitar, of people as peas, small, hard, and mean, in that Princess and the Pea sense of discomfort. There’s a long, pregnant pause after he sings “Just to get you back” for the last time, and then he returns to the opening line: “When I see the sun”, and now Brokaw and Engle weigh in with distorted guitars. Oddly, they don’t change the song’s tone; in one sense, they bring power to Immerwahr’s internal sentiment, and in another they actually manage to surround and almost drown it out, emphasizing the isolated, failing hope that his defiant attempts to make a tiny difference imply.

This release actually contains, as I mentioned, a second LP of “bonus material”, largely composed of demos recorded to encourage signing, some of the demos Immerwahr recorded alone while living with Engle, before they’d actually congealed into a band. It also contains the acoustic recording of “Pea” that graced the European CD, and even their Neil Young-inflected (?!) track “Corner Store”. Because this is bonus material, I am going to give a tracklist and only a general sense of it with highlights, as anything more would be silly and excessive.

Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Castle [Demo]
  2. Skeletons [Demo]
  3. 3 Angels [Demo]
  4. Corner Store [Demo]
  5. Summer Dresses
  1. Pea [Acoustic]
  2. Second Chance [Demo]
  3. Pickup Song [Demo]
  4. Cave-In [Demo]
  5. Kitchen

“Castle” and “Skeletons”, recorded as part of the sessions that contained most of these tracks (all of Side Three, and the last track of Side Four) are a bit out of character: the first riff of “Castle” and the entire pace of “Skeletons” belie the hardcore musical relatives of the band (Brokaw was in a hardcore band called Pay the Man prior to Codeine, played for G.G. Allin [!], Bitch Magnet were more distinctly post-hardcore and on the hardcore end of that genre, etc). Heck, “Skeletons” would not sound too out of place in the early alternative rock descendants of hardcore like Hüsker Dü. The demos of songs later included on Frigid Stars LP are interesting primarily for those who are enamoured of the album itself, and, in this context, don’t encourage much further comment. As with most demos, they are rougher, less clear, and vary slightly as alternate recordings are wont to do. “Corner Store” is an interesting marriage of Immerwahr’s Neil Young vocal impression and the languorous segment of his output as filtered through the sensibilities of Codeine, or, due to pace, maybe a band more like Galaxie 500 (whose sound it is just a tad closer to, vocals notwithstanding). Many of these were actually released under various other names as a tiny home-dubbed cassette (of which there is no internet record at all, shockingly). “Summer Dresses” allows Sooyoung Park to actually make a “visible” appearance, with a beautifully smooth bassline and dreamy vocals from Immerwahr. The guitars (provided by Immerwahr) are clean, simple, but bright and summery, with all the nostalgic yearnings of Galaxie 500. “Kitchen” is an all guitar/voice track, simple track that is the complicated fluff of a clever songwriter fiddling around with ideas and working them out by recording–the lyrics are all descriptions of the immediate: his current activities, the boredom, the state of his life in general.

I don’t mean to ride too heavily on Galaxie, as the comparisons are largely not apt or appropriate (except “Summer Dresses”, which, beyond Park’s bass style, could be mistaken by an incautious ear quite easily). Codeine are more associated with starting the “genre” of slowcore, which inevitably annoys almost every band allegedly responsible for “starting” subgenres that end in “core”, with the possible exception of “hardcore”. No one wants credit for emo, even when it wasn’t just a derogatory term, no one wants to be called “nu metal”, and no one wants to be called “slowcore”, because the names are good for what spawned them–an attempt to condense the sound to a tiny description–but not as a term for an entire “wave” of anything. Other than bands that would deliberately follow the sound and fail to break any new ground, it’s not easy to so cleanly encompass a group of artists.

But the odd thing is, “slowcore” is ridiculously apt for Codeine. It codifies the two most exemplary elements of their music: the deliberate pacing, and the resultant force of that pace, as implied by the hardcore-derived suffix. Whether it’s the “right” term is another issue, but as a functional shorthand for this album (and quite probably their other output), it works–an adjective, rather than a trademarked line drawn around them and other groups, a box to definitively toss them in.

And there is an immense power to what they play: the decisive, measured approach necessary to playing like this is apparent at every moment. Almost every band has a bad habit (or good, depending on your point of view–but usually it’s described as unintentional, even if appreciated) of speeding songs up when played live, but live footage of Codeine proves that, because the pace is so incredibly deliberate, it’s part of the performed version as well. When there’s so much space around the sounds, it lends unbelievable weight to every beat, every note, every chord, every word.

They sound as if they are playing in an empty concert hall–not because they have no one attending, not as some indication of solipsistic isolation or moody claims to isolation, but because it sounds alone. The albums are described as relentlessly depressing by many, but I didn’t necessarily get that impression, even as the lyrics do emphasize it. There’s a closeness, a natural element to the playing that isn’t something just anyone could do, and proves that “Well they play slowly” isn’t enough to describe it. These aren’t “normal” songs slowed to a crawl, they are songs constructed explicitly for this speed. Immerwahr described his inspiration for the idea of a band paced this way as hearing speed metal on the radio and finding it impossible to believe as human in origin. Strangely, that, too, is incredibly relevant: the weight behind Codeine is the purity of humanity, the feeling of being all-too-human, even in the dead moments of boredom and inactivity, of lethargy and drug-induced haze. In the way that fiction inevitably (with exceptions, such as Jarmusch’s occasionally–but, I think, deliberately–painful Stranger Than Paradise) chops time up and feeds back only the important bits, the pace of Codeine is emblematic of the pace of actual life. Not necessarily some deliberate “metaphor”, so much as just the abstracted, objective, observational fact of it. Even when we say time is crawling, it’s rare to feel each and every moment–instead, one looks up and sees less time has past than previously expected. Even when the chords or drum hits are played in sonic isolation, huge gaping chasms left between them, they feel connected enough that it is like that same slowness.

This was a really cool record to pull out of nowhere: I’d even listened to Low (discovered by Galaxie 500 producer Kramer) who also play at a deliberate pace, but nothing really prepared me for the way Codeine so professionally maintains themselves as both huge in sound and calm and deliberate. I suppose, being as the album is over twenty years old, that you might have heard some derivative (or a relative like Low), but none I’ve heard have quite this mastery of pace, where you feel the slowness and hear it, but never feel like it should be any faster, either, other than the fact that it’s so unusual for it not to be.

  • Next Up: Coheed and Cambria – ?

¹The album was first released in Germany, to the confusion of many. Sub Pop’s signing of the band let to its release here, which changed the tracklist somewhat in hopes of encouraging domestic purchase. “Pickup Song”‘s B-Side was included, and a new version of the song “Pea” was attached to the end–which also meant removing the German bonus track: an acoustic version of “Pea”. Confusing enough, but “Pea” was also recorded another time, but before either of those, where it acted as B-Side to the “D” single.

²While I can’t easily reference a popular post rock band (unless you know the genre, your best chance to have heard it outside friends who like it is the soundtrack to 28 Days Later, which contains a track by Godspeed You Black Emperor! at the famous opening moments of an abandoned London)