Slowcore: 10 Indispensable Albums (Part 1 of 2)

I don’t love the term slowcore. I do, however, stand behind what I believe the term represents. Humans need to compartmentalize and categorize to make sense of the whole of life, and music does not fall outside of that. And although it’s easy to scoff at the fan and critic mentality to stick ‘core’ on the end and call it a day, I prefer to hold out a little hope in what I see as a byproduct of rational human behaviour. So what does slowcore represent other than a bunch of bands that play slowly? Slowness is part of it, as all the bands I’ve chosen to list below could be lumped into a group representative of music made up of slow tempos. But there is so much more.

Attached to the decision to play slowly is a kind of network of other less conscious decisions. Playing slowly means playing more deliberately, carefully and thoughtfully. Bands that play slowly also often play quietly – though there are plenty of exceptions to this, as this list attests – and with quietness there is always at least a notable level of vulnerability. Take a singer-songwriter performing with an acoustic guitar as example. With all other instrumentation stripped away beyond a voice and guitar there is little else to hide behind. The din of a band behind you can mask your imperfections, but in the songwriter scenario every mistake rings out like a pin drop. The difference is that everyone expects the delivery of the songwriter, but few walk into a rock show expecting the music played at a snail’s pace. Thus, slowcore bands are like rock music’s delegates of vulnerability. They are the raw, exposed nerve, the sensibility beneath a veil of noise, the pause in the constant stream of zealous stimulation.

As the name suggests, slowcore is not so much a musical movement but something that’s crept along, ever shifting and subtly evolving. Aside from it’s origins, it is tied to neither geography nor time. So-called slowcore bands came primarily from America, but there was also a significant presence of like minded acts spawning out of the UK (Hood, Tram) and Scandinavia (The White Birch). The German label, Glitterhouse, who partnered with Sub Pop until ’95, is to thank for getting American slowcore distributed abroad, and likewise assisted to the global awareness of European acts.

When considering bands that had an influence on the sound that’s come to define slowcore, Low is inevitably stuck at the top, with Red House Painters, Bedhead and Codeine close behind. Twenty years later and we’re still hearing the influence of these bands on more mainstream indie rock acts like Real Estate, Whitney, The XX, or even Beach House and Kurt Vile. It’s hard to say how many would actually site slowcore bands as influence, but the similarities are often undeniable. Aside from where slowcore has gone and where it continues to go, it’s beginnings are inextricably tied to the 90s, which then rippled into another smaller but significant wave in the early 2000s. For the next two weeks, The Alcohol Seed will look at ten albums from these eras of slowcore, presented and analyzed. So, let’s dive in…

Early Day Miners – Let Us Garlands Bring
(Secretly Canadian, 2002)

early_day_miners_let_us_garlands_bringSouthern Indiana based Early Day Miners have remained very low key since their humble beginnings in the late 90s. The band released 7 LPs, their last, Night People, surfacing in 2011. Since then the Miners have been mostly dormant, though members have been hinting at forthcoming activity for some time, but things remain uncertain. Early Day Miners (who, as of 2011 have gone by the shorthand EDM) seemed to draw from many wells of influence, including UK shoegaze and good ol’ Texan post-rock. The biggest statements in shoegaze had long left the pressing plants by the time of the Miners’ forming, but post-rockers like Godspeed and Mogwai were only just getting going. During the band’s nascent years, however, the Early Day Miners sound was unmistakably that of slowcore, apexing with 2002’s raw and sprawling Let Us Garlands Bring.

The band’s debut, 2000’s Placer Found, saw their sound a bit lost within ineffectual space. On Let Us Garlands Bring, the Miners fill in that space with just the right amount of additional instrumentation that never goes so far as to suffocate their sound. There is also an overall presence in the songs, a sense of deliberation and direction, that seemed lacking on the debut. Perhaps more than any other slowcore outfit, the Miners didn’t shy away from writing expansive music, bearing resemblance to Talk Talk’s later years. You can especially hear Laughing Stock in the song “Summer Ends,” with it’s languid unfolding of repetitive drums, clean guitars, and yes, harmonica. Experimental yet approachable, Let Us Garlands Bring was a vital late edition to the movement.

Codeine – Frigid Stars
(Glitterhouse / Sub Pop, 1990)

Codeine_Frigid_StarsIf there is a milestone slowcore album, then Codeine’s debut, Frigid Stars, is it. It is the oldest album on this list, and marks a subtle paradigm shift during a monumental time in modern music history, especially in regards to Pacific Northwest released music. Codeine was primarily a New York band, but Seattle based Sub Pop decided to release their debut at a time when grunge was all anyone was talking about. The label’s cofounder, Jonathan Poneman, has described the band’s music as “understated, elegant, forceful, and beautiful,” but also abhors the idea of Codeine as a pioneering slowcore band, and has referred to the so-called genre as a “made-up movement that reeks of critical contrivance.” Fair enough. We can at least both agree that the band’s music is beautiful.

Though they might immediately resemble a grunge or punk outfit, Codeine’s catalog, including Frigid Stars, sounds like nothing other than Codeine. One can only imagine the confusion of audiences walking into one of their shows, knowing that they were on Sub Pop and having no other information. I’m sure a lot people were shocked, and I only wish I could have been among the lot. As an album, Frigid Stars is pure, raw energy. Every note, every second of feedback has been greatly considered for its emotional impact. Whether it’s the massive slide guitar on “Pick-up Song,” the droning glacial riffs of “Second Chance,” or the acoustically driven and heartfelt “Pea,” Frigid Stars will remain nothing short of an understated classic.

Bedhead – WhatFunLifeWas
(Trance Syndicate, 1993)

bedhead_what_fun_life_was

Bedhead was the brainchild of Texan brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane, who released three albums throughout the 90s, all bearing a nearly identical sound and similar minimalist artwork. Over a seven year run Bedhead grew into one of the more reliable acts that consistently played at slower tempos but whose songs were very technical. Unfortunately, the band’s dynamic range makes for an unenjoyable listen in social and public settings – you have to turn up the quiet parts to hear them but turn the volume back down during the loud parts. In a similar vein, I imagine that Bedhead’s music was probably difficult to record. Their records are best suited for quiet settings, either with headphones on or played on your home stereo during a time when you’re able to sit down and soak in the details.

Considering Bedhead’s catalog, their second album, Bedhead’d, is probably their most accessible, while Transaction de Novo, their third and final LP, is probably their most experimental. WhatFunLifeWas sits somewhere in between. The album is both rock inclined, with the additions of tracks like “Haywire” and “Living Well,” yet makes room for Yo La Tengo like mellowness on “Bedside Table” and a bit of rockabilly twang on “To the Ground”. “Powder,” the album’s centerpiece (if one feels so inclined to single one out), unfurls slowly even for Bedhead’s standards, and whose closing minutes of instrumental relief is one of the band’s finest moments on record.

Red House Painters – Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)
(4AD, 1993)
red_house_painters_rollercoaster

Listening to Red House Painters in 2017 is opening a time capsule to when the artistic expression of one man was still deeply embedded in the emotions that made his music great. From then until now, Mark Kozelek has come very far, probably even further then he could have imagined when he was plugging away at his sound with the Painters. Sure, long-time fans will tell you that at some point his vision became warped and his music insincere as a result. Could any fan, say 10 years ago, have predicted the audio equivalent to a dog’s breakfast that is Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood? Probably not. But, the silver lining is that people are still discovering Mark’s music these days, not so much for the quality, I suspect, but for the sheer fact that he keeps pumping it out into the world. He’s just gotten to a point where he can reach a much wider audience. I say good for him, but for what this critic’s opinion might be worth, the guy peaked in ’93, right here with Rollercoaster.

When I ranked the Painters’ albums around the time I started this site, I mentioned that when Koz gets pissed at people who request old songs at his shows, it’s usually ones from Rollercoaster he jokingly refers to. It’s no coincidence. This album is simply packed with the best Painters material. Whether it’s “Mistress”,”Grace Cathedral Park”,”Strawberry Hill”,”Katy Song” or “Things Mean a Lot,” there is at very least one song that remains timeless for fans. For me, it’s “New Jersey,” the first of the Painters songs I ever heard. The song discovered me (how I like to think of it) at a time when I was deeply seeking a new musical obsession, something meaningful that would lead me down a fulfilling path of discovery. Kozelek’s music was it, and to this day I’m still winding down that path.

Duster – Contemporary Movement
(Up Records, 2000)

duster_contemporary_movement

If Codeine redefined slowcore as punk then Duster were its ambassadors of Lo-fi. The band’s output was minimal, with Contemporary Movement being their second and final album (the follow-up to the spotty but interesting Stratosphere from ’98). Contemporary Movement saw the band effectively go from a two-piece to a three-piece, with more creative involvement of past part-time member Jason Albertini. As a result, Duster’s final album became a fleshed-out slowcore masterpiece.

Duster created music that was as gritty as it was soothing, as distant as it was right up next to you. Galaxie 500 might be a half-decent comparison to the band’s sound, but Contemporary Movement rarely gets dreamy, nor does it take you on any reverbed guitar journeys. Instead, the band plod along over the course of 13 concise songs, the music’s brilliance revealed over time as a cocktail of great guitar tone, punchy instrumentals, and songs that hook one’s head into a slow nod and leave one’s finger in search of the repeat button.

Catch you next Monday, March 20, for part 2 of The Alcohol Seed’s 10 album slowcore feature.

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