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Codeine's lost album 'Dessau' feels like a ghost

Following the <em>Frigid Stars LP, </em>slowcore trio Codeine went to Harold Dessau Recording studio in New York City in 1992. Pictured here, left to right: Stephen Immerwahr, Chris Brokaw and John Engle.
Mike Galinsky
Courtesy of Numero Group
Following the Frigid Stars LP, slowcore trio Codeine went to Harold Dessau Recording studio in New York City in 1992. Pictured here, left to right: Stephen Immerwahr, Chris Brokaw and John Engle.

When Codeine released the Frigid Stars LP in 1990, the New York City band single-handedly invented what would later — somewhat cloyingly — become known as "slowcore." Predating influential albums by kindred spirits Low and Bedhead by almost half a decade, Codeine's glacially slow, but immense songs supported lyrics that were like a disturbingly pure embodiment of depression. There was quite simply nothing else like it.

Listening to Dessau, a newly released "lost" album, is akin to reliving a memory I can no longer fully access: I know all the words and chords, the details are all the same and, yet, somehow everything is different. Recorded in June 1992 at Harold Dessau Recording studio in New York City, the album consists almost entirely of alternate versions of songs that were later rerecorded. "Jr." and "Realize" — later released on the Barely Real EP — are beautiful but somewhat faithful reproductions, while the songs that would eventually end up on The White Birch are startlingly different. Dessau is much more natural and noisy than the stark, slower, hyper-precise versions later recorded with Doug Scharin, the powerhouse drummer who replaced Chris Brokaw.

Originally intended as the band's sophomore effort, Dessau was recorded at a particularly fraught moment when bassist/vocalist Stephen Immerwahr seemed to be in personal crisis. Given the band's depressive lyrical content and Immerwahr's recollection of the events surrounding the Dessau recording — including a "high-pitched, radio frequency-like noise on all my vocal tracks" that no one else could hear — one could conclude that he was experiencing something wildly different from the rest of the band. And despite guitarist John Engle and Brokaw's confidence that it was their best work, Immerwahr felt, according to the liner notes, "a deep, sickening fear that what I wanted us to achieve was beyond our reach."

But it was this unashamed expression of sadness and isolation that resonated so strongly with me as a depressed teen. In 1993, Codeine spent a summer in my hometown of Louisville, Ky. The band only played once, at an all-day concert with around a dozen bands on the bill, including my own. Inevitably, the show veered hilariously off schedule; Codeine eventually took the stage at one in the morning, but after almost everyone had gone home. The indie-rock band's "sensitive and sincere" music echoed throughout the surreal environs of an enormous, almost empty 1,500-capacity shell of a building that had previously served as a laser tag arena. Despite the band's glacial tempi, Engle broke strings on both of his guitars early in the set and then borrowed a guitar from headliner Crain, proceeding to break yet another string. Everyone on stage and in the audience was in disbelief at the absurdity of it all. I was 13 at the time, and while I can still picture it in my mind, the memories have softened and my mental image of the show is now hazy and my memory likely at least a little unreliable.

While my teenage loneliness and pain has mostly subsided, hearing Codeine always snaps me back to that place. Close to 30 years later, I'm left with the feeling that I saw a ghost; Dessau feels like that ghost is in my living room. If I can be forgiven for the dreadful pun, it all feels barely real.

Sarah Hennies is a composer based in upstate New York. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Bard College.

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Sarah Hennies