June 27th, 2005 by Matt Schild, Aversion.com
There are some tides that, once risen, cannot be turned; Pandora’s boxes that, once we crack the lid, we never recover the harpies we unwittingly unleashed. Social pundits cite the arms race or the polarization of partisan politics. Cultural watchdogs point to information trading (and idea theft) fostered by the Internet, rock and hip-hop’s influence on mainstream culture. If you ask Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, they’d be apt to add The Posies to that list.
The Seattle power-pop band returns for its first full-fledged studio album since 1998’s Success (Pop Llama) with this year’s Every Kind of Light (Rykodisc). The Northwestern pop masters’ return to the world of active bands isn’t the sort of impossible reunion story upon which VH1 programming thrives, nor even the cash-generating midlife crises of typical reunion bands. No, if Auer and Stringfellow had their way, The Posies would be just another dead band, an entry into the annals of Pacific Northwestern bands that had their day and moved on. That’s if the two songwriters had their way. They quickly learned that escaping their Posies background would be a lot more difficult than they expected.
“When you say ‘can’t escape it,’ it’s bizarre. It does feel inevitable. As much other stuff we have going on and things we do, we actually really enjoy doing this together,” singer/guitarist Auer says. “We’d had this band, made records, broken up and we were in the process of doing something to add a note of finality to that, which was creating a boxed set. Doing that, it was the thing that provided the impetus to start playing again.”
The road to comeback started innocently enough for Auer and Stringfellow. The pair put the finishing touches on what was supposed to be the band’s swan song, Success. Shortly after that, they gathered to put the final nails in the band’s casket – organizing the usual best-of collection (DGC’s Dream All Day: The Best of the Posies) and a last farewell to its most obsessive fans, a four-disc boxed set (Not Lame’s At Least, At Last). By 2000, the pair’s longstanding collaborative affair should have been a thing of the past. It was time to move on, to focus on both singer/guitarists’ solo careers and dissolve their 13-year partnership in The Posies.
Escaping the band’s gravity wasn’t as easy as the pair expected. Just as the finishing touches added to the postmortem collections, the pair picked up a pair of acoustic guitars and agreed to play one final, low-key acoustic set for old times’ sake. That’s all they needed to slowly start dissolving the plans to bury their Posies past.
“It started so innocent. It really did,” Auer chuckles. “We played one show together and that show was a lot of fun, and then that show was more shows, then it turned into someone recording one of those shows. We did a live acoustic record and it turned into a tour, then in 2005 a band, a record deal and a record. It wasn’t really planned, but sometimes it almost feels like it was.”
A three-month acoustic tour, an acoustic live album (2000’s In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Plugging In [Casa Records]) and a new EP’s worth of acoustic songs (Badman’s Nice Cheekbones and a Ph.D.)later, and it was clear that, try as they might to control their destiny, Auer and Stringfellow were connected to The Posies in what soon started to seem like an unbreakable metaphysical bond. Breaking it wasn’t in the cards – at least for the time being – so the duo gave into the inevitable and recruited another rhythm section (bassist Matt Harris and drummer Darius Minwalla) and began the work of a full-fledged comeback.
The band rehearsed and geared up for a short string of shows, the first real Posies-as-a-band sets the act had played in several years, figuring a reunion tour would satiate fans’ tastes for all things Posies. It did, to one extent. To another, it just made fans hungry for more Posies. Rather than exhaust the well of fan interest, the tours simply primed the pump. After the reunion hubbub ran its course, The Posies were faced with a dilemma: They could keep milking the reunion nostalgia (see also: The Pixies) or take a more legitimate route and justify their fans’ devotion with new material. It wasn’t too tough of a decision.
“There was a point where we decided: ‘Well, we’ve kind of exhausted all of these other possible steps. Do we really want to, and I hate to use the phrase, make a commitment?’ We had to set aside time to do what we were doing versus letting things take an organic route. We had to make sure that we all agreed to all be in a specific place to make this record. This record was born out of necessity almost because we only had a certain time to do it. Like I said, the path here wasn’t super-contrived, but it’s funny to think that the method of making this album, we kind of provided ourselves a blueprint to make it.”
What good’s a metaphysical bond if you never test its limits, right? After succumbing to the realization that they weren’t going to be able to destroy The Posies through any conventional, solo-project, the-band-is-over means, Auer and Stringfellow gave their reborn band a difficult trial by fire: They’d enter the studio completely unprepared and write, rehearse and record a new song every day or so. They might not be able to escape the curse of The Posies, but they’d be damned if it turned into an albatross around their collective neck.
“The deal we kind of made was if we tried and failed, this wasn’t going to happen if it’s not worth putting out. What happens when you put four guys in a room that have been working on and off together awhile and say: ‘OK, what are we going to do today?’ Let’s face it, that can be a total recipe for disaster. We did that every day. It was a grand improvisation. I really got off on it because it was really exciting. It was like you painted yourself into a corner every day and had to figure out how to get out of that corner. It was really cool.”
The result is an album that should amuse and, quite possibly, befuddle longtime Posies fans. Every Kind of Light moves the band’s repertoire farther from the grunge-addled indie pop that served as its basis than ever before. While there’s still enough sugary frosting coating on Every Kind’s beaters, the updated band massages new wrinkles into its formula. Album opener “It’s Great to be Here Again” shakes its groove thang with a funky bass line, while the act jams out in the garage with the noisy “I Finally Found a Jungle I Like.” “Last Crawl” sounds more like mid-’90s R.E.M. (for whom Stringfellow serves as a hired-gun touring guitarist) than the overdriven sounds of classic-era Posies. Even stranger, the band fiddles with 12-bar blues on “Could He Treat You Better,” and “Sweethearts of Rodeo Drive” sounds like Ryan Adams fronting The Byrds.
Despite all the forays into new genres and experiments with new flavors, The Posies’ trademark sound bleeds through everywhere on the album. There are, of course, several tracks (“All in a Day’s Work,” “That Don’t Fly” and “Conversations”) that feature the warm, fuzzy guitars and swirling vocal harmonies of the band’s back catalog. Re-creating the past, however, wasn’t too high on the songwriters’ list this time out, which made its impromptu songwriting/recording session even more of a challenge.
Posies – Curse of the Posies”One of the criteria in our experiment was we tried to not repeat ourselves,” Auer explains. “What haven’t we done? There were a lot of ideas that were discarded along the way because they were reminiscent of what we had done in the past or we didn’t want to do something that was construed as Posies-by-numbers, even for the people who might like Posies-by-numbers. Hence, you got something that’s almost a blues song on the record, which is hilarious to me to be doing something like that.”
Even with Every Kind of Light barely in stores and in critics’ hands, one element of the album’s already drawn more attention than the band’s newfound eclecticism: For the first time in the band’s career, The Posies have found their political voice. A handful of songs (“Could He Treat You Better,” “It’s Great to Be Here Again” and “Sweethearts of Rodeo Drive”) are elaborate metaphors, mixing breakup and relationship and comeback excitement with cutting commentary on the right-toppling American political environment and our excessive consumerist culture. While it may be a shock for fans, don’t think Stringfellow and Auer climb up on the soapbox punk-rock style on this album. The Posies approach political commentary with a much softer touch, almost similar to the anti-Republicanism of Revenge of the Sith: The political overtones are there for anyone who wants to pick up on them, but they’re by no means an essential part of the work.
Nonetheless, “political overtones” is quickly becoming the buzzword that stalks Every Kind of Light. Sure, they’re there, but it’s a small portion of the album. That focus on the ideological underpinnings of a fraction of the tracks instead of the album’s songs already started to worry Auer.
“I definitely want to dispel and downplay the fact that there are political songs on there,” he says with a sigh. “I feel that in some ways that it’s becoming a little overshadowing to the fact that there are like four songs that could be considered. However, two of those songs, if somebody didn’t tell you they were political you might not know. They’re masked under the guise of a song about a relationship, potentially about a man and a woman. I think for me, I get really tired of political stuff when I feel it doesn’t hold up to the message that it’s trying to get across. If I didn’t think the songs worked on other levels besides that, I’m not that interested.
“Again, it was also fun. It was also the state of mind that we were in. We were so hell-bent on doing anything we could, and all of our friends were, to keep George Bush from being in office again, call me a liberal. Whatever. It was really just that our heads were so wrapped up in it, it was hard to avoid. I think we did it in a humorous way.”
The band’s political meanderings shouldn’t distract from the bottom line: It’s 2005 and The Posies finally have a new album in the can. One listen to Every Kind of Light, and it should be a wonder why the duo didn’t give in to the inevitable sooner: There’s obviously a lot of life in The Posies’ camp if it comes forward with an album like this one.