By Mac Randall, Launch, 16 August 2000
If you measure a band’s activity by the complexity of its release schedule, then you’d have to conclude that the year 2000 has been an incredibly busy one for Seattle’s finest powerpop auteurs, the Posies. First, in February, there was a live album, Alive Before The Iceberg, which went a long way toward capturing on disc the group’s frenetic onstage attack. Following closely behind was Dream All Day, a smartly compiled treasury of their best-known work for Geffen Records, with five tasty rarities appended. A live acoustic album, In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Plugging In, has just been released, and a four-CD boxed set, At Least, At Last, is on the way as well.
There’s only one thing that’s a little odd about all this: After five studio albums and more than a decade together as a working band, the Posies broke up two years ago. At least they thought they did. “It’s really funny,” singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Ken Stringfellow admits on the phone from somewhere in Washington. “There’s more stuff by us coming out now than ever. It’s like we’re not allowed to break up.”
Rumors of the band’s imminent demise began circulating around the music industry as far back as 1996, and Stringfellow confirms that they were based in fact. The Posies had gotten out of their deal with Geffen, for whom they recorded three albums, and decided not to bother chasing after another major label. Instead, they’d put out their final studio statement on the same indie, PopLlama, that issued their first. Released in 1998, it was called Success; their debut, released 10 years before, was called Failure. Nifty symmetry, huh? Originally, the band had figured they’d part ways immediately after the album’s release and not even bother to tour behind it, but as time wore on, those plans changed and farewell concerts were booked. The final Posies show took place in September 1998.
“We’d kind of reached this apex with [1996’s] Amazing Disgrace, especially in terms of our live show,” Stringfellow says in explanation of the band’s breakup. “It was like, ‘Well, this is as far as we can take it playing the kind of music we’re playing, this is the tightest and most rocking we can go with this genre. We’d have to change our musical basis to play heavier than this.’ And we thought, ‘Well, that’s silly.’ It also seemed like we couldn’t really go backwards from there either, so I felt like we’d gotten to the point where we’d start repeating ourselves. That, and the whole decision of ‘Is this still our full-time band, is this all we want to do?’ I think everybody felt that we’d all sacrificed certain things to devote our time and energy to the Posies, and that we didn’t want to make those sacrifices anymore.”
And so Stringfellow turned his attention to forming a new band, Saltine, who are currently finishing up their first album. His longtime Posie partner, fellow singer, writer, and strummer Jon Auer, began work on an album of his own. But it wouldn’t be long before the two found themselves back together once again. Earlier this year, the Posies’ manager put on what Stringfellow describes as a “celebrity open-mic night” at a small Seattle club. Both Stringfellow and Auer were there, and the audience soon began demanding loudly that they join forces onstage, which they eventually did; they hadn’t rehearsed anything, but it hardly mattered. “We started out playing as an acoustic duo around Bellingham, our hometown, back in 1987,” Stringfellow says, “and doing this just reminded me of those early shows. There’s an energy that happens when we play acoustic that’s different from the electric band, but it still feels like a rock show. I don’t mean to put down the other people who played that night, but in comparison to us, everything else seemed kind of ethereal.”
The success of this event encouraged Auer and Stringfellow to follow up with a full-length acoustic duo gig, which they were urged to record. It turned out to have been a good idea. In front of a boisterous crowd that knew all the words–even when the original songwriters occasionally forgot them–the two past and present Posies turned in spirited renditions of such gems as “Flavor Of The Month,” “Please Return It,” and “Suddenly Mary.” That concert can now be heard on In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Plugging In, a charming document that’s notable both for its air of easy informality and for the welcome reappearance of Ken and Jon’s patented heart-stopping harmonies. Stringfellow says the decision to release the live recording came out of their consciousness of a strange posthumous momentum that seemed to be building behind the band: “We were already working on the boxed set, the live album was out, and then when the best-of came out, we were just like, ‘This is a sign, let’s release this.'”
And what about that boxed set? “It’s something we’d been talking about for at least a couple of years, and we finally assembled it this year,” Stringfellow explains. “A lot of Posies demos and live stuff have been traded by fans on the Internet, and we thought it would be nice to compile them, make them sound good, and put them in a nice package, and that’s precisely what we’ve done. It’s 60-odd tracks–14 songs that have never been heard before, some obscure B-sides, a bunch of demos, live tracks from our first show to our last show, stuff we did for tribute records that never came out, and a couple of other odd things. Basically, it’s every unreleased song we could find.” Any particular favorite moments going back over it all? “The Muzak tracks,” Ken responds instantly. He’s not kidding. “They literally were done by Muzak. They did ‘Golden Blunders’ and ‘Suddenly Mary’ sometime in the early ’90s, and they’re wicked. They pulled out all the stops–big cheesy sax solo, all the ninth chords you can shove into one song. It’s incredible, probably the greatest musical honor of my life.”
One more thing, which seems almost inevitable at this point: In support of their band’s burgeoning afterlife, Auer and Stringfellow are taking their acoustic duo show on the road and touring as the Posies one more time, covering the U.S. in August, with possible European dates to follow. It appears safe to say that the Posies are back, for a little while at least. One can only hope that all this activity will help introduce some new listeners to the music of a band whose masterful combination of melody and aggression never quite got its due the first time around, but who will almost surely go down in history as one of ’90s America’s greatest rock acts.
Speaking of the acoustic duo tour, Stringfellow says, “Anybody who’s a Posies fan or a potential Posies fan should see us perform these songs in this state, because this is the way the songs were written and I think it really is the closest to our original musical ideals.” A shameless plug, perhaps, but one that’s grounded in fact. Take it from a true believer: Great as the records are (especially 1993’s Frosting On The Beater), you gotta see the Posies live. And this may just be your last chance.