Reviewed on this page:
Dear 23 -
Frosting On The Beater -
Amazing Disgrace -
In Case You Didn't Feel Like Plugging In
My favorite band of the 90s does turn out to be from Seattle, but forget about grunge: even though power-pop revivalists the Posies can rock like a herd of elephants, they're consummate crafstmen with only the slightest punk or heavy metal affectations.
But geographic serendipity and their accessible, poppy singles - "Suddenly Mary," "Golden Blunders," "Dream All Day" - did help them ride the early 90s tidal wave of Seattle grunge mania.
The group's sound can't be beat: singer/songwriter/guitarists Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow dish out ferocious, intricately arranged tunes with Beatles-influenced vocal harmonies, prominently mixed drums, brooding melodies, and massive slabs of guitar distortion.
All of which might sound like the kind of thing then being hawked by alt rock conventionalists like Buffalo Tom, Cracker, Dinosaur Jr., Juliana Hatfield, Material Issue, Matthew Sweet, etc., etc.
But Auer and Stringfellow have exceptionally strong tenors and pump out unusually solid hooks, and the group's incredibly obscure, riddle-ridden lyrics are like nothing else - there's one disturbing metaphor and vague introspective declaration after another.
Combined with the band's fierce dynamics, this stuff is consistently cathartic.
You can't go wrong with any of their four 90s albums, and their easily available Amazing Disgrace (1996) is an excellent starting point - it's one of the few records I'm willing and even eager to hear two times in a row.
After a well-received, home-recorded two-man-band debut LP (Failure, 1988) and a successful full-band effort that showed them still a bit bogged down with cheery pop influences (Dear 23, 1990) but able to deliver excellent singles material like "Golden Blunders," the group gained major national attention with Frosting On The Beater (1993).
But Geffen Records didn't do enough to promote Amazing Disgrace - a genuine embarassment, because it shows the group maturing into hard-hitting alt rockers with unerring commercial sensibilities.
Understandably not amused, the group released a final, minor-label record in 1998 and then split to work separately.
Stringfellow served in REM's backing band during their 1999 tour, is credited on their 2001 album Reveal, and has been involved in side-projects with acts like Chariot (with mid-90s Posies drummer Brian Young), the Orange Humble Band, and Saltine (with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens).
Meanwhile, Auer worked as a producer for Popllama and recorded solo material, and both Auer and Stringfellow have been involved with a band called the Minus 5.
Luckily for everyone, the duo reunited occasionally for solo shows, and then reformed the band for a new EP and a tour in 2001.
They finally got together for a full-length CD in 2005.
In a bizarre twist of fate, Auer and Stringfellow have backed Alex Chilton - the grandfather of power-pop - in recent incarnations of Chilton's band Big Star, with Stringfellow switching to bass and Auer playing lead guitar in live shows during 1993, 1994, 1996, 1999, and 2000; they appear on the live Big Star record Missouri University.
Another weird connection - Brian Young also belongs to the mid-60s pop-rock retro jokers Fountains of Wayne (a vastly inferior act, but that goes for pretty much everyone now making rock records).
I have reviewed a recent Posies concert.
Far and away the best fan site I've seen is the posies.net.
There's also the truly amazing Red Chapter Jubilee tape trading site. (JA)
Formed 1988. Jon Auer (guitar, vocals), Mike Musberger (drums), Rick Roberts (bass), Ken Stringfellow (guitar, vocals).
Roberts replaced by Dave Fox (bass) after their 1990 album, Fox and Musberger by Joe Howard (a.k.a. "Joe Bass" and "Joe Skyward") and Brian Young (drums) after their 1993 album.
Group split, 1998, reformed in 2001 with Joe Bass and Darius Minwalla (drums).
Bass replaced by Matt Harris in 2005.
Their minor-label debut. Only Auer and Stringfellow appear here because the album is a home recording and the "band" hadn't formed yet; Auer is on drums and Stringfellow on bass. I'll grab this the next time I see it. (JA)
Dear 23 (1990)
Produced by John Leckie, the group's breakthrough album is softer and more conventional than their later work, with tons of acoustic guitar and melodic bass - they often sound exactly like the Hollies or Simon & Garfunkel (the aching single "Suddenly Mary," with a 2/4 bass line and sparkling harmonies).
They're willing to gear down for a sugary, if well-written Wings-style ballad ("Apology"); "My Big Mouth" is clever as hell, but its fast walking bass line and cheery harmonies recall the Monkees as much as the Beatles.
The lyrics are uncharacteristically direct and focused on the miseries of teen romance (the gorgeous "Any Other Way"), which isn't always a good thing.
Still, their melodic, harmonic, and dynamic mastery are already evident here, with Auer and Stringfellow's pure talent making all of their contemporaries seem like amateurs.
They've got the range to pull off a couple of sweet, confessional acoustic numbers ("You Avoid Parties"; "Everyone Moves Away"); a brooding power-pop song with a great Merseybeat chorus ("Help Yourself," the toughest thing here); and an extended, massively distorted, Hendrix-inspired guitar solo ("Flood Of Sunshine," otherwise a mellow jangle-rock affair).
Leckie does have an impact: with its methodical bass line, jazzy piano, and soaring Spanish guitar part, the epic "Mrs Green" sounds exactly like XTC at its late-80s peak.
Plus their retro teen pregnancy anthem "Golden Blunders" - covered two years later by Ringo Starr - is a key song, crossing a singalong folk-rock chorus and an acid rock middle. (JA)
Frosting On The Beater (1993)
A slickly produced, hard-hitting album that marked their commercial peak and a big step up in terms of songwriting and energy.
Probably the best rock record of the year, it sports their immensely entertaining, radio-friendly pop-rock masterpiece single "Dream All Day," with a great counter-point vocal and a churning, lead-footed guitar lick.
One track after another is outstanding: the late-period Hendrix homage "Coming Right Along" dispenses with bass and drums to spotlight a devastating minor-key riff and a gorgeous, super-creepy vocal chorus; "Definite Door" is a blazing textbook demonstration of pop-rock fundamentals; the down-tempo, tension-building "Burn & Shine" has a druggily entrancing vocal line; their crashing, hypnotic, Midnight Oil-ish anthem "20 Questions" is another key tune.
But producer Don Fleming doesn't contribute audibly, and the record's sound is often monotonous outside of the vaguely Eastern-sounding acoustic verses on "Lights Out," a very subtle REM influence on "Love Letter Boxes," some piano on the slightly poppish "How She Lied By Living," and a dash of organ on "20 Questions."
Too many good solid rock tunes like "Earlier Than Expected," "Flavor Of The Month," and the single "Solar Sister" just sound the same, and a few cuts are downright average ("When Mute Tongues Can Speak"; "How She Lied").
An excellent buy, especially if you see it cut out, but by all means don't stop here. (JA)
Live At Missouri University 4/25/93 (Big Star: 1993)
Auer and Stringfellow team up with original Big Star frontman Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens for a live record.
They do covers of T. Rex's "Baby Strange," Todd Rundgren's "Slut," and "I Am The Cosmos," taken from the posthumous solo record by Big Star co-leader Chris Bell. (JA)
Amazing Disgrace (1996)
A 15-track tour de force in every respect ("Fight It (If You Want)"), distinctive but truly comparable to the late 60s Beatles in depth and breadth.
The new rhythm section of Joe Howard and Brian Young is outstanding ("Hate Song," where Cheap Trick frontmen Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander also make a bunch of noise).
Young's shuffling, clattering energy and Auer's sizzling guitar feedback and distortion energize everything (the creepy, mesmerizing "Broken Record"), even when the band chills out with acoustic guitars, cello, and Byrds-y folk-rock stylings ("¿Will You Ever Ease Your Mind?") or edgy country-punk (the single "Ontario").
So the dynamics and tension-building are masterful ("Please Return It"), and the hard rockers are irresistable ("Daily Mutilation"; "Everybody Is A Fucking Liar").
Meanwhile, Stringfellow's gut-spilling, down-tempo ballads are devastating ("Precious Moments," possibly his best moment on disc; the sing-along "Throwaway (I Don't Have It Now"); "The Certainty"; "World," super-psychedelic and surprisingly straightforward).
The inscrutable lyrics are loaded with poetic allusions and head-spinning wordplay.
Producer Nick Launay pumps up the drums and gets a massive, shuddering, not coincidentally Midnight Oil-like sound, and there are plenty of extra touches like mellotrons and swirling Leslie speaker-like effects.
The group's debt to predecessors like Big Star is clear, but they're way better (the swaying acid rocker "Song #1," with its thrilling Eastern arpeggiations): they even do a spotless, pedal-to-the-metal Hüsker Dü imitation ("Grant Hart") and bury another gorgeous power-pop number as a hidden bonus track ("Terrorized").
It's hard to pick out favorites because every song is a gem. Buy. (JA)
This Sounds Like Goodbye (Stringfellow: 1997)
Minor-label release of a set of home recordings that alternates between demos in the usual power-pop style - they just fall flat without a rhythm section - and experimental electronic tracks with tape loops, programmed drums, wacky noisemaking, etc. (JA)
After being burned by the poor promotion of Amazing Disgrace and retreating to the Popllama label, Auer and Stringfellow pulled together an outstanding disc they intended as a farewell.
Adversity is an artist's best friend: their pissed-off rockers here are as raw and riveting as anything by Bob Mould ("Looking Lost"; the booming, Revolver-like "Friendship Of The Future"), and their soaring, melancholy acoustic ballad "Every Bitter Drop" is a show stopper.
The Joe Bass-Brian Young rhythm section is tough and professional, the group's Beatles-based harmonies and drizzly psychedelic touches are omipresent ("Who To Blame"; their brilliant acid rocker "Grow"), and the disc is packed with shockingly clever power-pop masterpieces ("Somehow Everything"; "Fall Apart With Me"; "Fall Song," building from a sinuous, baroque melody to a thunderous chorus), almost none which are routine ("Placebo" is OK, but sounds like an Oasis reject).
And they do stretch a bit: "You're The Beautiful One" salts heart-rending Simon & Garfunkel harmonies with tripped-out synth; their "Paperback Writer" homage "Farewell Typewriter" veers back and forth into a manic 6-6-4 rhythm; and the funky "Start A Life" crosses a danceable MG's-style beat with goofy techno synth lines.
A marvelous effort, much like the last disc, that just leaves you begging for more.
Co-produced by the band and engineers Johnny Sangster and Conrad Uno. (JA)
Alive Before The Iceberg (1999)
This doesn't exactly mark a reunion because it was recorded during the band's "farewell" tour in 1998.
They pretty much go through their standard repertoire. (JA)
In Case You Didn't Feel Like Plugging In (2000)
Okay, so they reunited: this one is a live, ten-song, duo acoustic set.
They lean on Amazing Disgrace more than anything else, but also reach way, way back to Failure ("Believe In Something Other (Than Yourself)"; "I May Hate You Sometimes), mine Success for "Every Bitter Drop," and of course revive "Suddenly Mary."
Oddly, although they haul out "Flavor Of The Month" and "Solar Sister" from Frosting, their most famous record, they don't bother with "Dream All Day" - I never, ever get sick of that one...
Anyway, the record as a whole is a bit disappointing: their tunes are really outstanding, of course, but they just work better in a full rock band context, because the two of them have such a huge guitar tone, Auer is such a fine lead player, and their rhythm sections are always so good.
Still, their harmonies are as wonderful as ever, and it's nice to be able to hear the lyrics so clearly.
It's also a much more careful performance than Alive Before The Iceberg.
I'll keep spinning this one until the cows come home, but skip it if you don't know the band's catalogue yet.
After this Auer and Stringfellow kept reuniting for live shows, but didn't record a full-scale album until 2005. (JA)
At Least At Last (rec. 1987 - 1998, rel. 2000)
A four-disc box set that consists entirely of demos and other unreleased or hard to get stuff.
I'd kill to get my hands on it (although I wouldn't pay full price; tells you something about my mindset). (JA)
Nice Cheekbones And A Ph.D. (2001)
Wow, they're talking about me.
And I've also got a great jaw line.
A legitimate reunion EP with four new tracks and a cover of David Crosby's flop 1967 Byrds single "Lady Friend." (JA)
6 1/2 (Auer: 2001)
A seven track EP of covers by the likes of the Psychedelic Furs ("Love My Way"), Madonna ("Beautiful Stranger"), and even Serge Gainsbourg (an instrumental "Bonnie & Clyde").
I have it and I think it's pretty good, albeit frustratingly short. (JA)
Touched (Stringfellow: 2001)
Stringfellow had formed a band called Saltine that performed live for a while and then split up, at which point he recorded the material he'd written for them and released it as a solo record.
I have this one too and it's incredibly disappointing, with surprisingly bland songwriting; Auer's exciting guitar parts and harmonies are sorely missed. (JA)
Private Sides (Auer and Stringfellow: 2003)
A six-song EP split between the two of them.
It's kind of a ripoff, because the tracks were recorded entirely separately and mostly sound like demos, without real rhythm sections.
However, they do seem to have a few interesting ideas.
I need to mull it over.
Jill Sobule plays multiple instruments on Stringfellow's tracks. (JA)
Soft Commands (Stringfellow: 2004)
A couple of big names here: Sobule and Larry Knechtel. (JA)
Every Kind Of Light (2005)
Yes! A new album!
And better still, a completely anonymous benefactor mailed me the CD out of the blue.
There is a Santa Claus. (JA)