In the 1990s, faced with the torrential onslaught of grunge and the increasingly-abrasive ways of alternative music, a rare handful of artists started to challenge the prevailing rockist mentality. Eventually, these lonesome satellites —bands like Codeine, Red House Painters, and Low— would be grouped in, together, as slowcore
. Membership in the club was not for the faint-hearted: playing slow, sad, frighteningly quiet, remarkably beautiful music in the era of jackbooted moshpits was fraught with peril. Here, then, is the best from those who dared: a rollcall of classic 1990s LPs from these masters of the spartan.
Sub Pop Records
It's interesting how history works. Over the past two decades, Slint's Spiderland has grown to something resembling classic-rock status, whilst the artistically-comparable Frigid Stars has remained overlooked and underrated. As have Codeine themselves. The trio were game-changers: radically razing away rock'n'roll's bluster and bombast, leaving something barely even passing for bare bones. Defined by Stephen Immerwahr's dispassionate, nasal monotone and slow, plodding bassplaying, Codeine played stark songs in a haunted state of drugged-out semi-consciousness. Not only did they define the slowcore sound, but they put the 'slow' in it. Frigid Stars is a landmark LP, in its own way, but it seems fated to remain eternally on the fringes.
Before the release of Down Colorful Hill —a set of long, un-rocking songs that were essentially Mark Kozelek's demos— no one cared about Red House Painters. Their melancholy folk-rock —schooled in painfully uncool acts like Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, and John Denver— was ignored in an era of sarcastic indie-rock. They had no local Bay Area following; their girlfriends didn't even like them, preferring Jane's Addiction and Nirvana to Kozelek's solemnly-sung, mournfully-delivered tunes. But, when the most influential indie of the day, England's 4AD Records, plucked Down Colorful Hill for release, a cult was born; Kozelek's melancholy ruminations on loss, regret, and nostalgia informing a new generation of slow, sad, sombre songsmiths.
The aptly-named Bedhead were born on idle afternoons in smalltown Texas, where brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane would wile away the empty hours of teenage tedium via endless jamming. By the time they were in charge of a bonafide band, the Kadanes functioned with a kind of musical ESP; their playing together so singular that Bedhead could easily fit another copacetic six-stringer, Tench Coxe. Playing interlocking patterns that almost sounded like a semi-slumberous take on math-rock, the trio of guitarists played with a bell-like quality: their clean, undistorted notes ringing, chiming, and pealing in various measures. The Kadanes vocals were uncharismatic mumbles, but the way they were buried within the sound only seemed to heighten it.
Low, slowcore's patron saints, have long reveled in an angelic songworld of heavenly harmonies and holier-than-thou airs; the married, Mormon pair of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk playing their strikingly-spartan, powerfully quiet music with the kind of reverence usually reserved for devotionals. Admittedly, they've grown both grumpier and funnier over the years, testing the boundaries of the 'Low sound' with blasts of distortion and straight-up pop, amongst other experiments. Their debut, though, captured them at a time in which their defiantly anti-rock stance was at its most astonishingly pure: I Could Live in Hope
a set of really slow, really quiet, really sad, really, really, really beautiful songs laid out naked in the face of grunge.
5. Bluetile Lounge 'Lowercase' (1995)
Though completely unknown outside slowcore's closed walls, Australian outfit Bluetile Lounge are a legendary proposition for the genre's devotees. Their two LPs —their luminous 1995 debut Lowercase, and its less-magical, still-really good 1998 follow-up, Half-Cut— are full of long, ponderous songs in which every instrument, be it guitar or drum, rings out, lingering. Lowercase caught them at an early peak; Daniel Erickson's songs piloting a nocturnal wasteland in which anxieties aren't tense and frantic, but slow-building, and all-consuming. It's a five-song, 45-minute study in isolationism, in a persistent loneliness leaving one feeling utterly unmoored; unsurprising sentiments for a band from Perth, the world's most isolated major city.
Brian McMahon was the driving force behind Slint, those in-hindsight colossuses whose Spiderland
provided a blueprint for post-rock and inspired many subsequent slowcore acts. By the time McMahon regathered with The For Carnation, those silence-to-violence highwire dynamics of Slint's mutant hardcore had washed away into a still-kind-of-menacing gentle introspection. On a pair of mid-'90s EPs, 1995's Fight Songs
and 1996's Marshmallows
, McMahon minted a new sound far more delicate than expected. The highlight of Marshmallows
is the astonishingly pretty, endlessly romantic "On the Swing," two near-perfect minutes in which a lilting, lulling, hypnotic guitar part rocks back and forth, and McMahon whispers a tender poem in growing-up's ear.
An iconoclast schooled in the shtick of outsider heroes Jandek and Scott Walker
, Kentuckian curmudgeon Bill Callahan has never been, strictly, a slowcore act. Where others on this list applied the formal austerity of hardcore to their near-silent bands, Callahan was just a singer-songwriter who delivered his songs at a snail's pace. The Doctor Came at Dawn
marked his most stripped-down, near-monastic set; the absurd comedy of much of the Smog catalogue abandoned on a suite of solemn, stark-naked, genuinely unsettling break-up songs. Chronicling his divorce from former collaborateur Cynthia Dall, he airs tunes like "All Your Women Things," wherein Callahan caresses a "spread-eagle dolly" of left-behind undergarments spread out on his bed.
Smells Like Records
Future Bill Callahan love-interest (and, with Knock Knock
, future break-up-album subject), Chan Marshall, was an unknown, wildly untrained, particularly strange songwriter when she knocked out this scrappy set of scratchy, scared, utterly haunted
songs. Though functioning in a pseudo-rock-trio with Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley and Two Dollar Guitar's Tim Foljahn, Marshall pilots proceedings into desolate, oft-atonal, genuinely unfriendly territory. On songs like "Ice Water," "Enough," and the utterly guttural "Not What You Want," Marshall sounds like a lost soul, standing on the very fringes of recognizable-songform/sanity. At such a point, few could've expected that this left-field figure would one-day achieve mass-cultural crossover.
Over their long-running tenure, Ida —essentially husband/wife New Yorkers Elizabeth Mitchell and Daniel Littleton— would slowly grow closer to the band they claimed to be modeling themselves on all along: Fleetwood Mac. In their early days, though, the pair clung to quietude, simplicity, and Low-esque vocal harmony; Littleton, a veteran of proto-emo hardcore act The Hated, particularly reveling in the non-rock-ness of his new digs. Ida's second record, I Know About You, is a set of sad, forlorn, fallen lovesongs in which every adornment —be it brushed drums, scored strings, or basic bassline— seems carefully, cautiously chosen. In later years, Mitchell would find unexpected fame playing old folksongs for kids, but that's another story...
10. Movietone 'Day and Night' (1997)
In the realm of slowcore, Movietone are a more 'jazzy' entry; their semi-syncopated sound daring to dabble with brushed drums, double-bass, piano, clarinet, and beachy lyrics(!). But, within rock's broader context, they're barely there: Kate Wright's vocals a breath caught in her throat; Rachel Brook's guitars dangling whispers; their fondness for vérité recordings often adding layers of tape-hiss and room-tone to tunes that have all the brutality of diaphanous curtains fluttering. Their second record, Day and Night, closes with a ten-minute séance of guitar harmonics, mallet drums, and sweet singing; its title, "The Crystallisation of Salt at Night," effectively evoking the quiet, gradual, barely-perceptible nature of Movietone's music.