Review Summary: "You could never disappoint me, because you're who you are."
Emotion. One of the most important aspects of humanity. The thing that separates us from other animals. This is something that all excellent music has. Excellent music is imbued with the artists’ raw emotion, how they are feeling, and their mind state. It’s what separates the true “art” from being just “fun to listen to”. All it takes is the first few soulful twangs from John Engle’s Telecaster on “Realize” to show that this is one hell of an emotional album.
1990’s Glitterhouse release Frigid Stars garnered critical acclaim from those that heard it, but at the time it was mostly under the radar. It was characterized by a distinct, almost completely unique sound for music at the time: John Engle’s slow, plodding overdriven minor chord progressions interspersed with clean passages, and Chris Brokaw’s dynamic yet equally slow drumming. Although Stephen Immerwahr’s unusually deep and thought provoking lyrics combined with his unique, apathetic voice were probably the most recognizable part of Codeine’s traditional sound.
Few people that I know have heard Barely Real, even those that are Codeine fans. At the time in 1992, other “slowcore” bands had not yet formed, and grunge was gaining mainstream popularity. Codeine favored dynamic soft-loud shifts, and they did so without sounding like grunge or any other indie rock at the time. The first Red House Painters and Low records show tremendous influence from Codeine. Barely Real is an almost cripplingly depressing record, full of bitter lyrics and alienating themes. Immerwahr’s chorus of “I feel like string, I feel like nothing” on the title track shows perfectly just what the band was trying to capture.
Immerwahr also covers topics such as unconditional love and friendships in his lyrics. Mostly he is very blunt, singing exactly what he means instead of using metaphor. It does not take much mental processing to understand what he is talking about, but this detracts nothing from his meanings, which cut straight to the heart and can easily be identified with. The alienation and depression in the lyrical of themes of the record coincide perfectly with the doomish tempo of the instruments. Engle’s guitar work is paints a bleak, drab picture, and Immerwahr’s bass keeps a steady heavy low end throughout. It even gets especially crunchy and Slint-like on “Promise of Love”, a track that sounds like it could’ve been on Spiderland.
The emotions run wild on Barely Real, oozing from every guitar chord, drum hit, and vocal line. Codeine’s characteristic sound is at its best and most refined here. Listening to Barely Real for the first time was an almost spiritual experience, similar to how I felt hearing Zelienople’s His/Hers or Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet. While stylistically nothing like either of those albums, I consider it a classic EP and highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of any music.