Saturday, February 28, 2009

CODEINE "The White Birch" (Sub Pop) 1994

Both the LP and CD copy of Codeine's The White Birch have been aging gracefully in my record collection for 15 years. Released in 1994 (I was 16), I bought it immediately with almost no knowledge of the band, only that I liked the cover art and the label was Sub Pop. I now regard this purchase as one of my more significant "impulse buys" of all time. Little did I know that Codeine would never make another record, and that my first exposure to their music was actually their final output. This has happened quite a few times in my life since - buying a band's last record first, then acquiring the rest of their catalog in reverse chronological order over time.

One of my many obsessive-music-fan traits is that part of my attraction to a band is occasionally centered around a proprietary mythology or mystery that I've created in my own head about them. This was true of Codeine, since I never had the chance to see them live or knew anyone who had. I'm actually totally content with this - I've imagined some really great Codeine shows in my own head, and those are what I'd rather think about rather than watch any shaky, low-resolution video footage of the band that might exist on Youtube these days.

When I was listening to The White Birch obsessively ('94-'96) I remember being annoyed that reviewers often mentioned Low and Codeine in the same sentence. For me, the bands shared similar tempos but not much else. And even though I started listening to both bands around the same time, the early Low records had a sound that was more conventionally palatable in a way that was less appealing to me and didn't possess the alienated, lonely, and introverted mood that the Codeine records had. I liked that The White Birch wasn't slow because it was relaxed, but rather because it was more hollow, rusted, frozen-over.

Understandably, these qualities have given The White Birch a special resonance to anyone living through oppressive winter weather. Among some of my midwestern friends Codeine records were often described as a "good soundtrack" to certain things: smoking, winter walks, late night drives, or any somber, solitary activity we might have been doing during those snowy Dec-Jan-Feb months. (To be fair to Low here, I make an exception for their excellent 1997 Songs for a Dead Pilot record, mostly because of its' pseudo-Codeine-like bleakness and glacial sustain - specifically the songs "Born By the Wires" and "Landlord", which I always secretly wished Codeine would have covered...I would've gladly paid for the studio time...)

But for all the crawling tempos and delicate, sustained notes this band could rear up and make some loud fucking noise. Many have made note of Codeine's wide dynamic range, and it's impossible to ignore. I don't think I've ever heard sad chords roar up at such high volumes and then instantly dissipate all the way back down to a clean-tone whisper. And I'm not sure I've seen a more confident and elegant career-exit moment (and better album-end fade-out) than the last song on The White Birch, "Smoking Room", whose beautifully slow retreat out to sea sounds like a band writing the music for the end credits of their own movie. I have always been humbled by the restraint on Codeine records in general, and this end part in particular. I think this is one of my favorite endings of any song, and it always makes me think fuck, these guys knew exactly what they were doing. It took a while, but after some time I had to admit that The White Birch and Codeine had influenced almost every aspect of my approach to playing and thinking about music. I'm not sure if its embarrassing to admit this, but this record taught me quite a few important things.

There are a few mysteries surrounding Codeine I have always wondered about. For example: How did the relationship between Codeine and David Grubbs come about? A solo piece of Grubbs' minimalist piano music (similar to his other solo piano work for the Table Of The Elements label) appeared on Codeine's previous 1992 EP release Barely Real and was later cleverly arranged as a full-band song for The White Birch. I have always been a pretty big Gastr Del Sol fan, and so Grubbs' behind-the-scenes presence was always intriguing and never really defined in print - what exactly was he in Codeine? Producer? Collaborator? (Studio shadow?)

Another Codeine mystery that I've never solved: What the fuck ever happened to singer/bass player Stephen Immerwahr? Two-thirds of this band is a known quantity - Chris Brokaw went on to be active in Come (and now The New Year, among other projects) and Doug Scharin continued with Him, Rex, and a pretty lengthy, well-regarded stint in June of 44 as well as a billion other drummer gigs. The hollowed-out, ghost voice of Codeine is nowhere to be found in music these days. I had heard that Immerwahr was in a new band called Raymond who had released a debut 7" shortly after the demise of Codeine, but I have never seen a physical copy of this or heard the material - only scans of the record and cover remain on the internet. Please post if you have any info on this.

Here is an excellent posting of rare Codeine 7"s put together by NYC uber-archivist, Daily Show employee, and good pal BJ Rubin.

Also, the rare Codeine / Bastro euro tour split 7". (I once got involved in a very bitter Ebay bidding war over this one)

I would also hate to have written this much about Codeine and omit the mentioning of their floating, expansive cover of the Joy Division song "Atmosphere" on the Means to an End tribute compilation (on Virgin Records, no less), whose lyrics are right at home beside those on The White Birch:

"People like you, have it easy - face like the sun, walking on air..."

(p.s. - I will edit this post and try to have The White Birch and the "Atmosphere" cover available for download in the next day or two.)


  1. Love this post, "The White Birch" was an impulse buy for me too. Most people regard "Frigid Stars" as their pinnacle, but "The White Birch" is phenomenal. Those chords in "Sea" immediately going from loud/distorted to clean/quiet, just perfect dynamics.

  2. here's what "happened" to stephen:

    does anyone know what john the guitarist is up to?

    i saw them live in '94 and it was otherworldly...

  3. great post! and one of the few I've found that separates Codeine from the more lyrical/folky slowcore acts like Low and RHP, as much as I love those other acts. Codeine were in a very different vein, as you say, close to Slint, but I've always considered Idaho to be closer brethren; especially their first album, Year After Year.


  4. ha! having just gone back and listened to that Idaho album for the first time in 5-6 years, I have to say it's a lot faster than I remember: except maybe for tracks 7 & 10 'The Only Road and 'Year after Year', the "slow songs". It must have been the vocalist's delivery that made me perceive Idaho as being as Codeine-slow.
    But tempo aside, the slightly odd harmony and textures of Idaho's first album still makes them, IMHO, a close relation of Codeine's. Idaho's ability to use non-triadic pitches in the chords (not to mention the layer of feedback tones that are often in some spectro-orthogonal relationship to the harmony) yet sculpt progressions of magisterial beauty still amazes me.

    December 26, 2010 4:25 AM

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