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Old 11-28-2009, 11:50 AM   #46 (permalink)
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Default Codeine - The White Birch (1994)

1. Sea
2. Loss Leader
3. Vacancy
4. Kitchen Light
5. Washed Up
6. Tom
7. Ides
8. Wird
9. Smoking Room

John Engle – guitar
Stephen Immerwahr – bass, singing
Douglas Scharin – drums
David Grubbs – guitar on Tom and Wird

Recorded by Mike McMackin 1993

Released by Sub Pop 1994

In 1994 life moved a lot slower than it does today. At least mine did. Learning about music came more from direct experience than the internet. Logic coupled with many hours of CD rack browsing was how good bands were discovered. I had to seek out music by bands on certain record labels and peruse the credits on the CD covers and such. This is how I found Codeine. I had heard the name and a song or two before and had filed them in my mind as a band that was probably a fairly boring specimen of the early post rock bands. The music press term ‘slowcore’ was applied to them after all (“it’s like indie-punk, man, but like, slow”), and they did name themselves after an opiate. Then I found their album, The White Birch, and saw that it was released by Sub Pop and decided that maybe there was some actual rock in it. I admit, if the album was released on another more artsy label, I may have passed it by at the time assuming that it was too boring to justify paying $11.99 for their CD (that’s how we used to get music in the olden days). Thankfully, I bought the CD that day and it was a solid purchase; the album continues to rank high on my list of all time favorites.

The White Birch is perfectly slow throughout the album. And the whole thing chugs along at a fairly steady pace. Still, the band uses distortion and loud/soft dynamics in the fashion of real rock-n-roll bands so it is not a typical example of what is now called post rock although one could argue that it is prototypical. It is slow music for slow times but it also reaches emotional highs and, despite the low speed, it is far more energetic than a lot of latter day post rock that was influenced by Codeine. A lot of the energy comes from Immerwhar’s vocals, even though his singing is slooow. Some of the songs have a spoken/muttered quality that was popular at the time. But usually he employs melodies and tempo shifts just like a real rock singer. He also packs a lot of emotion into those lazy-ass phrases. And since I’m talking about the players now, I’ll bring out the big guns: drummer Doug Scharin. He is not the band’s original drummer - that’s Chris Brokaw who went on to play in some other interesting bands that will probably be discussed later in this thread. The White Birch is Codeine’s last album and the only one with Scharin. I feel that it takes an exceptional drummer to play so damn slowly and, no offense to Brokaw, but Scharin took Codeine to a higher level. His drums on The White Birch are amazing at times. He goes incredibly slowly but still plays so many interesting fills and small flourishes. There’s also the sound of sheer power. Scharin’s drumming sounds like an unyielding force lumbering forward slowly like an elephant in an ancient Roman battle. John Engle is also no slouch on the guitar. He does quite a bit of the loud-quiet-loud thing and likes to step on his distortion pedal giving the songs a thick texture despite the slow, simple arrangements. The White Birch is one of those albums that feel perfect – for lack of a better cliché – like planets aligned and the right musicians got together at the right time to make a special, superior album.

The White Birch is a collection of songs that flow together as they should on a good album. I hardly think of the songs as separate entities and, no, that does not mean that they ramble around in circles for 15 minutes. In fact, other than the 7-minute opener, the album is full of concise 3 to 5 minute songs that pretty much have beginnings, middles, and endings. There are some definite standouts, though. ‘Loss Leader’ is probably the biggest crowd-pleaser as it has a heavy, emotional tone with dark-sounding bass, melancholy melodic vocals and loud, fuzzy guitar choruses. It’s this kind of thing that probably interested the management at Sub Pop – they almost sound like Sunny Day Real Estate here. ‘Kitchen Light’ brings the drama with a repeated verse that’s basically a small crescendo over and over, building to bigger and bigger crescendos through the song. All at a snail’s pace. ‘Tom’ is another high point with a dramatic intro that gears up to a loud, sad chorus. Then, thankfully, the cycle repeats.

The insipid practice of attaching the suffix “core” to other words to describe music has been a flaw of the music industry for over two decades. It has been proven useless and silly many times by bands like Codeine who have been called ‘slowcore’ and *shudder* ‘sadcore’ in the press. I still have no idea how the additional core-word helps the otherwise descriptive terms. Oh well, at least you get the idea that the band plays music slowly, and that’s certainly true. The White Birch is a slow, sad album but the lack of speed is not the point – it is also a catharsis. Slow movement is only a side effect of opiates, their real purpose is to mitigate pain and the same is true of Codeine’s masterpiece. So – when you can find the time - head to the Slow section of your local record store and pick up your copy of this classic piece of core.

Loss Leader

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