The White Birch (Sub Pop)


By Bob Bahr

This album is like the month of February, a dismal stretch of winter; except on The White Birch, the omnipresent grey clouds never break.

Codeine carefully constructs songs of sadness and contemplation with a deliberate approach that never offers any release. It's done with raw guitars, bass and drums. The result is a batch of punk ballads that echo (or predate) the terrible beauty and simplicity of Rodan's music, but with less inventiveness and spirit.

Dynamics are the crux of this band. The abrupt volume changes accentuate lyrical phrases, breaking the ice but not dispersing the cold. This effect is produced not just by the band's playing, but through the production of The White Birch, in which John Engle's guitar chord may be clipped with the punch of a console button.

Stephen Immerwahr, bassist and vocalist for Codeine, delivers the lyrics with the deadpan calmness of a man who is weary of hearing bleakness turned into a yelling lash of anger. His voice never wavers or utilizes vibrato, instead riding notes as detachedly as a machine. Lyrics are sometimes spoken, with the voice of despondent, terse poet. The pauses are agonizing. The space in between notes and within chord progressions is more oppressive than any amount of torrential guitar noise.

Drummer Douglas Scharin follows closely with crafty, instinctive tattoos on the snare and relaxed work on the rest of the kit. Guitarist John Engle is responsible for the hard crunches and the delicate tendrils of chilling phrases. The music is well-executed and thorough, to the point of being boring.

Codeine is the name of the band, but Prozac is the drug that The White Birch might have you craving.

As "Sea" says good-bye to a love and "Loss Leader" meditates on bad leadership, the title of the song "Kitchen Light" illustrates the myopia of Codeine's vision. Remember Sting's little black spot on the sun? It's perhaps the squashed guts of a fly on Codeine's once-white kitchen wall . . . and this band's fetish is just as melodramatic, just as claustrophobic in its introspection, and devoid of memorable melodies to boot.

"Washed Up" carefully builds dissonance into disturbing chords, with an insistent repetition in the bass. Hammering strokes from the guitar build up to nothingness, and there's no escape from the dark mood. A guitar solo on "Washed Up" — the only distinct one on the album — is more a slow thrashing in the lower register than a statement.

More of the same, "Tom" explores hopelessness, and states, "I need a reason to smile." "Wird" piques curiosity with a peculiar guitar figure, and holds it until the listener's pulse rate goes way down. When the electric guitar unleashes an assault, it instills true terror — for a second. Then the numbing sameness trades art for artifice.

Coming off "Wird," "Smoking Room" is a downright reverie, but that closing cut will only edge you back to the land of the living, not instill any vibrant life into you.

The lyrics explore the frustration of inertia, a dissatisfaction with the lack of choices available, and the pointlessness of it all. The listener may feel these exact sentiments about The White Birch. The elegant, classic black-and-white packaging of this CD accurately reflects what's within.

Unfortunately, our world is full of colors, and Codeine's monochromatic world view grows tiresome over nine songs and 43 minutes. This band would be ruined if one of the members got happy about something. Fans can only hope that they stay miserable, andthe rest of us can enjoy the spring.