I wish I remembered the first time I heard Codeine. I wish I remembered how I came to find them in the vast landscape of American music. It must have come either during my senior year of high school or freshman year of college, because that was a huge turning point in the arc of my music listening habits. I know ‘Frigid Stars’ was the first record of theirs I heard — and it was really, really good — but it was ‘The White Birch’ that really hit me. The first time I heard that record I was ready to turn around and proclaim that this was one of my favorite bands, period.
I’ve gone through many Codeine phases during the past decade-plus, when the two LPs and one EP (plus a smattering of 7″ 45s) are all I can listen to. This could account for the large amount of people who think of me as being a very dour person. Odds are at some point during the tenure of our friendship, I’ve forced you to endure these records either on long drives, at parties (what a downer, I know), or on one of those not-so-random occasions when I just pluck a record off my shelf and blast it for no reason. This music resonates with me on a rarified level that few other artists have ever reached for me. When I heard Numero Group was gearing up to reissue the three official Codeine releases: ‘Frigid Stars’, ‘Barely Real’, and ‘The White Birch’ I was as elated as I was nervous. Would the label handle the releases with the reverence they deserve? Would they fuck with the sound? How much bonus material would they include, and it would just be tracks that are available elsewhere, or would it be unreleased recordings?
I pre-ordered my box set the day they went on sale. The first item to arrive was a Numero Group t-shirt in the style of the old Sub Pop “Loser” shirt, only this one aped the venerable “Indie” label’s style and replaced the word “Loser” with “Winner.” Meh. I gave the shirt away. I had hoped for a Codeine shirt.
The box set, with the bonus 7″ (“Pickup Song” and “New Year’s” recorded live by Bob Weston!) arrived on Friday. I took it home and listened to ‘Frigid Stars’ that night, both the studio recording and the bonus disc, then took the CD out to the car to see how it sounded. I found myself connecting more with the original songs than the bonus material. Not having heard it in a long time, “Cigarette Machine” startled me. Listen to that song and remind yourself that it was released before Slint released ‘Spiderland.’ Shocking. Amazing. Most of the so-called “SOS” (Sound On Sound) demos serve only as notice that ‘Frigid Stars’ was as good as it could have been. “Castle” has a weird up-tempo intro that gives way to the group’s typically deliberate pace, but it sort of meanders in the middle section. “Skeletons” would have sounded entirely out of place juxtaposed to the rest of the LP. “Corner Store” channels Neil Young a bit too much. The reason ‘Frigid Stars’ — and by extension the whole of Codeine’s catalog — sounds so good is because of that deliberate pacing. In the liner notes for ‘Frigid Stars’ (by the way, all three albums’ liner notes are brilliant and divulge a lot of useful information about the band) Stephen Immerwahr talks about the genesis of the band’s sound. He says he was, “listening to a lot of speed metal…I’d been thinking…’That sounds really hard to play. No human could be involved with it.’ I was interested in the slowness of emotional depressive states. The slowness of opiate drug states. There’s a certain intensity that comes from playing intentionally slow, a visceral intensity. We wanted it to be part of the way we were playing. Tempo was going to be an important part of what we were going to be. It took us a while to get good at playing Codeine slow…the feeling of Codeine slow.”
‘Barely Real’ is the most perfect EP I have ever heard. “Realize” is one of the band’s best songs, and their cover of MX-80′s “Promise Of Love” stretches the song almost a minute longer than the original version. The demo versions of “JR”, “Wird” (the non-solo piano David Grubbs version, that would later appear on ‘The White Birch’) and “Tom” are all solid. The demo “I Wonder” sounds a bit like “Broken-Hearted Wine,” which is a great thing. Speaking of which, that song (I believe it’s the “Realize” single version) appears on the bonus disc here, and I’m grateful for that, as now I won’t have to go digging through my 45 collection when I want to hear it. Also included on the bonus disc is “A l’Ombre De Nous,” which was previously only available on the Codeine/Bastro split 7″ that’s getting pretty hard to track down these days.
Lastly, I listened to ‘The White Birch.’ Of course the record sounds great, but the demos and extras here are what made me happiest of all. The trio of “Median,” “Loss Leader” and “Sure Looks That Way” from the band’s 1994 Peel Session are available for the first time outside of shoddily transferred MP3 files. At the time of the recording (April) the band had been on the road in Europe for five continuous weeks without a break, no new songs were being written, and there was an air of finality not just to the tour, but the band as a whole. Not even two months later drummer Doug Scharin quit the band. Immerwahr and guitarist John Engle recorded a few cuts with a drum machine to try and cull some material for a fourth album — including a brilliant cover of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” — but the fire they had hoped to rekindle instead petered out. At least the band knew well enough to call it quits before they fucked it up — ‘The White Birch’ is as beautiful, haunting and remarkable a record as you may ever hear. It still stands as one of my favorite albums.
At $80 the Numero Group box set isn’t exactly cheap, but if you’re a Codeine fan it is essential. Not just for the music and the bonus material, but for the liner notes that accompany each record. Through interviews with band members and their peers, a history is related that is just as impressive as the music contained in the box. What the trio of Immerwahr, Engle and Brokaw (and later Scharin) accomplished in their short lifespan has been imitated and acknowledged as influential by countless musicians. With any luck, more people will come to this band via the reissues and the upcoming U.S. tour (see you in LA!), and the Codeine legacy will continue to grow in the months and years to come. God knows they’ve earned it.
Codeine – Median (4/27/94 Peel Session) [MP3]