Last week, we talked about Codeine’s debut and slowcore masterpiece, Frigid Stars. Not long after that album, and its follow-up EP Barely Real, guitarist and drummer Chris Brokaw left the band to focus on his other project with singer/guitarist Thalia Zedek: Come. Come’s output was also slow and expansive in its own way, but it wasn’t really slowcore at all, and Brokaw’s knack for textures morphed into something new when he meshed it with Zedek’s sultry growl and her own rattling guitar work, not to mention the propulsive rumble of bass player Sean O’Brien and drummer Arthur Johnson.
People spent a lot of time talking about the blues influence on Come’s music — and their cover of the Rolling Stone’s “I Got The Blues,” which closed out the CD version of their debut, 1992’s Eleven: Eleven, probably spurred that on — but really their music was about something else. There’s blues in there somewhere, to be sure, but this is less about rock traditionalism and more about a brilliant synthesis of all things old and new in rock. And what the band did all over their discography, but perhaps most shockingly right out of the gate on Eleven: Eleven, is how it changed how we look at guitars in rock music.
Or at least the album should have. Come has always (and unexplicably) been a critic’s band. And while that might make sense for a band like Codeine, with all their chilly, stand-offish layers, Come pulsed with life. Come dug their heels into the ground and drove forward. If their songs weren’t fast, they weren’t trudging either. They were just, well, intentional, big, fiery. There’s little of the chill of slowcore in these big songs, and not much brooding to be found in their shadowy layers. Because these songs aren’t obscured by cloudy overcast, they don’t brood. These songs are swampy, cloaked in mist and mystery, and snarling all the way. Zedek’s voice, and Brokaw’s guitar, and O’Brien and Johnson thudding away, they made for some big, blood-coursing sound.
And though it is about the guitars, it all starts with the rhythm section. Four songs in, “Off to One Side” makes this clear. The song begins with a wandering guitar, twanging and grinding away, in space all by itself. There’s no vocals, no bass, no drums. It establishes an affecting atmosphere, and has its own hypnotic qualities. But three minutes in, when the cymbals crash, and the bass groans, and guitar chords take shape and ring out, that’s when the song really comes to life. The shapeless guitar work hones itself into sharp angles, buzzsawing its way over the sturdiest of foundations. O’Brien and Johnson leave space when space is needed — see the wide-open riffage of slower numbers like “Brand New Vein” — but they also injected these songs with a sweaty vitality. As much as Come was about texture, about obscuring lines, you can’t deny the immediate power of “Fast Piss Blues” or “Dead Molly.” All over Eleven: Eleven, it’s O’Brien that ties Brokaw and Zedek down, that creates the necessary pulse to these songs. And Johnson, with his powerful rhythms and seemingly efforless fills, drives the whole thing forward not with speed, necessarily, but power, with an unstoppable inertia.
And this is the kind of sound you need if you’re going to be fronted by Thalia Zedek. Her gruff voice was a modern inversion of the likes of Janis Joplin, equally pained and beautiful, but with a glossy-eyed defiance to it. At the crashing end of mid-record stand-out “Bell,” Zedek wraps up all her howling with a curled-lip moan. “Do you remember what I’m waiting for?” she asks, both recognizing her want and challenging her subject, to know something about her, to let her know they’ve been listening. There’s plenty of ache to these songs, but no rolling over and taking it. Zedek doesn’t pine here, she doesn’t play victim, and she doesn’t lash out petulantly. She lays it all out bare, burrs and jagged edges intact, and the honesty of it is downright bracing. It’s not the clearest voice, but it’s imperfections are, well, what make it so perfect.
It also works perfectly with her and Brokaw’s tendencies on guitar. The two were very much about the power of guitar, don’t get it wrong. But they got there in a way that can be pretty surprising. Neither are flashy in their guitar work — this isn’t about quickfire hooks or mind-bending solos — but the combination of their sounds is pretty unique. They did take the low end of blues, the slight shuffle of its structure, but they also took more modern atmospheres — those cool textures in slowcore, the subterranean murk of college rock, even the eccentric piss-and-vinegar edge of acts like Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen. They took all those influences in, made them their own, and then took their damn time with them.
The songs on Eleven: Eleven somehow get stronger when they stretch out. “Brand New Vein,” “Off to the Side,” and “Power Failure” all hover around the six-minute mark, and none of them lose an ounce of energy. Even “Power Failure,” the slowest of the bunch, still churns. The guitars on the song ring out into obscurity, as each note ripples until it becomes feedback. It’s a perfect microcosm of what makes Come a great band. They start with the physical, the blood and bone, the sound of a pick hitting a string, a drum hitting a snare. But those sounds go off in all directions, stretching out into something bigger than you think they could ever become. It’s not about volume — although Eleven: Eleven should be played loud — it’s about size and heft. And this record is as big and heavy as they come. But that never slows it down. It’s an album that captures a specific time (see the title), but it’s a time that’s always existed. When players took their influences and, rather than standing on those shoulders, they made them into something uniquely theirs. In doing so, Come became one of the great bands of the ’90s — seriously, just go get their entire catalog — and with this debut, the band gave us not just a great album, but a sound to believe in. Eleven: Eleven, look at it again, chapter and verse. Come spoke the truth.