The tragic part about revisionist history is that it tends to either gloss over or erase the fine details. It seems to be a particular problem in music. In the attempt to neatly sum up or quantify a particular scene or time period neatly, it’s easy to ignore that most things rarely fit into a nice little package. So when you mention something like the early-90s Sub Pop scene, a very specific image is formed. The main one is that every band was from Seattle. The second one is that every band on the label trafficked in grunge or, at the very least, was big on loud, fast guitars. The truth is far less straightforward, and one of the biggest exceptions to that rule was New York–based trio Codeine.
Codeine’s first album, Frigid Stars, was inadvertently affiliated with Sub Pop mainly due to their German label, Glitterhouse, being the unofficial distribution arm for Sub Pop. After the head of Glitterhouse passed along a tape to Sup Pop’s Jonathan Poneman, they became the first band not from Washington on the label. But more importantly Codeine sounded like nothing else on the label or like very few things that were going on at the time. While their contemporaries were more concerned with cranking up the speed, making the guitars scream and letting the rage explode like a watermelon under a hammer, Codeine had a much different approach. Their rage was subdued, the guitars loud but perhaps not aggressive. But the most important difference was the tempos. They were deliberate, methodical and relatively slow, which got the band pegged as the forefathers of the slowcore movement. After five years, two records and an EP, the band called it a day. Now that snapshot in time has been reissued by the Numero Group under the banner, When I See the Sun.
When I See the Sun offers legitimate surprises. The main one being that Chicago-based reissue label Numero Group has decided to take on the task. For fans of Numero as a soul, funk and R&B label that mainly deals in music from the ’70s and earlier, this comes as a huge eyebrow raise. And one wonders why Sub Pop isn’t handling the project. Regardless, it’s an interesting exercise to see how the Numero aesthetic applies to ’90s indie rock. The short answer is extremely well. The package is as lovingly and as thoroughly researched and curated as any of the Numero releases. While of course there’s less digging and more things are readily available, the brains behind When I See the Sun made sure it got the same treatment. So there is a plethora of bonus material—extensive liner notes, demos, live takes and B-sides—that seem to nearly double Codeine’s modest output. It’s particularly significant on Barely Real, where the EP’s length goes from six tracks to 15. The bonus material shows a fuller picture of Codeine that may surprise even longtime fans. Within the greater context the idea of Codeine as slowcore almost seems to miss the point. Taking in the catalog as a whole, the band appears more deliberate than just slow, and that slower tempo seemed to build a tension that was almost unbearable in it’s apparent lack of release. But it was no less tight or powerful than their louder labelmates. Nor did it ever stray into sleepytime mode. Even on the final record, The White Birch, which honestly does move at a glacial pace, it almost seems more an emotional statement than an aesthetic one.
The other important piece of the puzzle that the bonus tracks bring into play is that Codeine could and did on occasion play fast and loud. Rather than seeming like an ill-fitting suit, it’s a revelation. Had they gone that route, they may be more often cited. But most importantly, in their chosen style, the demos and live tracks show that there are very clear choices about how to deliver the power without the speed. As a result, they hit on a formula than their decedents still can’t quite match. They were able to give epic without epic song lengths; with the exception of “Sea” from The White Birch, the band kept things pretty concise. Looking at Codeine’s catalog from a distance, one wonders what could have happened had they stayed around a little longer, gotten just a little more popular. It may have reshaped Sub Pop or at least the perception of the early ’90s. But no one will ever truly know. Either way, When I See the Sun at least restarts the conversation and helps set the record straight.
Dorian S. Ham