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Opinion | Slow-core could do the trick during sad times

Sad, slow pop music is a genre that began in the late 1980s. Sometimes that’s what works best during miserable times

Codeine at Wetlands, New York City, 1992.
Codeine at Wetlands, New York City, 1992. (Photo: Getty Images)

It can be quite a schlep to get your hands on Frigid Stars LP, a 1990 album by one of the earliest slow-core bands, Codeine. The popular streaming sites don’t have the album in its entirety and physical formats aren’t really easy to get. When you can, they are expensive—on Amazon, you can get a new vinyl if you want to shell out nearly $200 (around 15,000). But YouTube has a solution. Six years ago, someone put up the entire album there and it’s a great way to get acquainted with Codeine’s music as well as the genre that is sometimes also called “sadcore".

Paradoxically, when you are sad, it’s often not upbeat, happy music that does the trick for you but the sad kind. It’s difficult to figure out why but it does. Frigid Stars LP, Codeine’s debut album (and one of only two that they released in their short-lived career), is a set of 10 intensely sad songs that can, curiously, work as a salve when you are deeply blue. Take the album opener, D. The lyrics, sung by vocalist, bassist and bandleader Stephen Immerwahr, are depressing to the point of being fatalistic. The song is presumably about a relationship going downhill. The opening verse is “D for effort/ D for intent/ D because you pay the rent/ D for love/ D for insight/ D because you’re heaven sent/ I want you to need me—not to feed me/ I want you to need me—not to feed me." Many song lyrics are open to a listener’s interpretation but in this case D is quite likely the grade the protagonist is giving himself vis-à-vis the relationship with his partner.

Slow-core is a genre that first emerged in the US at the end of the 1980s, presumably as a rebellious response to grunge and heavy rock. The tempo is low, with sounds that are minimalistic, and the lyrics are often brooding and steeped in sadness. According to many, the Boston band from the late 1980s, Galaxie 500, is the real progenitor of the slow-core genre. That band’s dreamy, dialled-down sound, particularly on the milestone album On Fire (1989), is considered the beginning of the slow-core movement. But Galaxie 500, which lasted for all of four years, disbanding in 1991, sound way more upbeat than Codeine, possibly the real pioneers of slow-core.

Over the years, many bands have emulated Codeine’s brand of music. Even to this day, there are bands that make slow-tempo, minimalist music that could have been influenced by Codeine. Contemporary pop singers as diverse as Lana Del Rey and Cat Power have often been called slow-core or sadcore, and in the past 20 years there have been numerous bands whose oeuvre could fit that genre. To explore slow-core during these pandemic-induced, and often depressed, times, I decided to sample playlists compiled by others.

After a few attempts to find a suitable list, I found The Sound of Slow Core, a Spotify-compiled list of songs by bands both new and old. At the outset, let me warn readers: The list is long; more specifically, if you want to hear it from end to end, it’s going to take you more than 29 hours! But then, as we have all realized, some of us have way more time to spare than we ever did.

What follows is not a list of slow-core acts. Instead it’s a very biased attempt to select just a few bands, singers and songs that appear to stand out as examples of excellent slow-core.

Low, formed in 1993, are still going strong (12 studio albums, many live ones and compilations). But Lullaby, a song from their 1994 album, I Could Live In Hope, stands out as a slow-core track that could define the genre. Lullaby is nearly 10 minutes long. The bass, the guitars and the whispered lyrics sound as if they are building up to something louder, bigger and faster. The best thing is that it never happens. The moody riffs, sparse lyrics and dark brooding continue till the end.

Even slow-core has its supergroups and Britain’s Mojave 3 were one. Formed by musicians who have been part of various other shoegazing bands, Mojave 3’s album from 2003, Spoon And Rafter, has a gem called Bluebird Of Happiness. It’s a song about trying to find a way to “get home strong" and the male and female vocalists take turns to sing verses that are truly transporting.

Mark Kozelek, an American singer who has solo projects, was part of an erstwhile band, Red House Painters, and also records under the name Sun Kil Moon. Although known for his original storytelling style, Kozelek’s version of Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s hit from 1967, Something Stupid, is an outstanding example of how a new rendition of an old song can also make it slow-core.

Why, even Bonnie “Prince" Billy, the American folk singer, took a Grateful Dead song, Rubin And Cherise, about lost love and gave it slow-core treatment. That version is on the Day Of The Dead album, a tribute to the Grateful Dead by various artists.

Slow-core’s sad and gentle march has been continuing through the decades. And curiously enough, in these difficult times, it is soothing.


Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘D’ by Codeine from ‘Frigid Stars LP’

2. ‘Something Stupid’ by Mark Kozelek from ‘Mark Kozelek Sings Favorites’

3. ‘Bluebird Of Happiness’ by Mojave 3 from ‘Spoon And Rafter’

4. ‘Strange’ by Galaxie 500 from ‘On Fire’

5. ‘The Dark Don’t Hide It’ by Magnolia Electric Co. from ‘What Comes After The Blues’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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