PUGNACIOUS PANSIESPOP'S MOST PROMISING WEAKLINGS, THE POSIES, GO GRUNGE
It's bad enough that the band calls itself the Posies.
It doesn't help that one of the Posies is named Ken Stringfellow.
And it certainly makes for dubious PR when another rock performer, Bob Forrest of Thelonious Monster, refers in song to his ex-girlfriend "walking off with some faggot from the Posies."
It's not easy being the wimpiest band in the recording bins.
In response to the many flannel-shouldered bullies on the block, the Posies have hitched up their hip-huggers and clenched their little fists. They've taken their fresh-faced pop sound and put some scars on it. They've distorted their guitars. They've put a pummel in their drums. The Posies, in effect, have turned themselves into another budding grunge band from Seattle.
The Posies were once the last, great purveyors of pure pop for now people. The band's 1990 album, Dear 23, rang with high harmonies and wonderfully manicured songcraft. Cuts like "Golden Blunders," "Apology" and the exquisite "Any Other Way" were spot-on with their chiming chords and melodies. The Posies at their best could reduce Hollies, Badfinger and Big Star fans to pure-sweetened jelly.
But the Posies' most recent release, Frosting on the Beater, is harder to swallow. From the crunch of the CD's opening song (Dream All Day") to the moody, muddy-haired closing cut (Coming Right Along"), the new, muscle-bound Posies compromise on their promise.
Yes, the Posies can still hit the high notes. And, yes, the Posies can still invent intricate song structures. Indeed, only the Posies could compose a tuneful gem like "Flavor of the Month," or the ingratiating "Definite Door," the new CD's best cut.
But even then, it sounds as if the band is blushing. It sounds like the Posies are ashamed of their pop smarts. As if they'd rather prove they can bash and pop just like every other act out of King County.
"You could call the new record semigrunge, I guess," says singer-guitarist Jon Auer with a shrug. "The thing is, I don't think we'll ever make a record that sounds the same as what we've done before."
Auer says the goal for the new disc was to make a recording more akin to the Posies' live performances. He says fans would come to Posies shows and express surprise at how "hard" the band sounded onstage. Auer says he's heard people compare the Posies' live sound to buzz-saw bands like Hsker D. And he's not kidding.
"Dear 23 was never very representational of how we sound onstage," Auer insists. "We spent six weeks recording the ten songs on that album. There wasn't much left to chance. But for the new one, we went in and did the good songs in about eight or nine days. We just bashed em out. And I kinda like the difference."
Auer then pauses. "Actually, neither record was really made under optimum conditions," he says. "Maybe the next one should be done somewhere up the middle."
That would mean working with someone a little to the cleaner side of Frosting producer Don Fleming. If Fleming's name sounds familiar, it should. He's produced noisy CDs for Teenage Fanclub and Screaming Trees. And Fleming's got his own band, Gumball, that puts out passable pop songs of a weighted, lethargic bent.
"We wanted to capture a bit more spontaneity," says Auer, explaining why Fleming was hired. "He'd sit back and turn the recording studio into a clubhouse instead of a lab."
Auer adds that it was Fleming who selected most of the material that made it onto Frosting. "He kind of picked the songs that were pop songs, but kind of skewed," says Auer. "He wanted to complement pop melodies with weirder and darker moments."
That sense of postadolescent angst works on Frosting's debut single, "Dream All Day," which starts with the protagonist asserting, "I've got a lot of thoughts/Got a lot of plans." Later, we find the true nature of such ambition: "Hiding under a thousand blankets . . . /I could dream all day."
Also admirable is "Flavor of the Month," with its pure, Posies melody and sneering allusions to the pop scene: "The flavor of the month is busy melting in my mouth," Auer sings. "Getting easier to swallow/Harder to spit out."
But just when you think the Posies have enough moxie to handle Fleming's man-size action, along comes a song like "Burn and Shine," an exercise in tedium belabored by an exhaustive guitar solo. Later, a singsong throwaway called "Lights Out" takes up CD space for no apparent reason.
All of which makes you wonder: Were the Posies ever really the heirs apparent to all things pop and wonderful? Most critics thought so. Paul Westerberg thought so, too. Westerberg, convinced after hearing the Posies' self-released debut cassette, requested the unknown band as the opening act on the Replacements' final American tour.
And some folks still think the Posies have what it takes. Folks like Alex Chilton, for instance. Chilton, the tortured demigod of Box Tops and Big Star fame, recently agreed to resurrect Big Star for a one-off reunion show at the University of Missouri. It seems a couple of deejays at the campus radio station thought it would be swell to get the legendary rock act back together. Auer and Ken Stringfellow were recruited to fill the spots of original bassist Andy Hummel and the late Chris Bell. The Posies pair joined Chilton and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens for a two-hour set in front of about 300 people at the university's annual Springfest.
Dream all day? Auer says he still can't believe it.
"Big Star means as much to me as the Beatles, if not more," Auer says of the early-Seventies band that wound up influencing R.E.M., the Replacements and untold other alternative acts. "With Ken and I, being in that band is a very reverential thing. It's like being in a part of history."
Auer says he and Stringfellow got the Big Star gig by "luck" and "a bit of finagling." Actually, Auer and Stringfellow had previously worked with Stephens on some recordings at Ardent Studios in Memphis. And it didn't hurt that the Posies routinely cover Big Star's "Feel" in concert, along with a nice rendition of Bell's "I Am the Cosmos."
"It's not like we didn't know the songs," Auer says, laughing. "In fact, we knew some of Big Star's songs better than Jody and Alex. There was one point where Ken and I hit on a harmony and I saw Alex's face just light up. He told us later that the band couldn't even repeat some of those harmonies back in the old days."
The Big Star "reunion" went well enough for a recording of the set to be scheduled for release this fall on Zoo Records. The same Big Star lineup also has an extensive U.S. tour in the works, along with some international dates in Japan, New Zealand and Australia.
"It's scary," Auer says. "I figure if it all stops tomorrow, I'll have plenty to tell my grandkids about."
And if Big Star burns itself out, Auer and Stringfellow will still have the Posies. But will anyone still want the Posies if the band again tries to prove its manhood? Will anyone be listening if the band continues roughing itself up? What if Dear 23 turns out to be the best album the Posies ever make?
There soon may be a black hole next to Big Star in the pop universe.
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