By Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune, 14 December 1990
In Seattle, the home of some of the loudest, grungiest guitar rock of recent years, it takes guts for a band to call itself “the Posies.”
But when Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow got together a few years ago to record some songs, they had to call themselves something.
“Actually, I didn’t like the name at all,” Stringfellow says. “But now I almost like it because it bugs people, because it’s so uncool, so untough.”
The Posies, who will headline the late show Friday at Cabaret Metro, have since emerged as one of the year’s coolest new acts, thanks to “Dear 23” (DGC), their first major-label album.
Although Seattle is lately renowned for the “Subpop” sound, a reference to the record label that spawned such guitar monsters as Mudhoney, Nirvana and Tad, the Posies specialize in untrendy virtues such as hummable melodies and soaring harmony vocals.
“When we started writing songs, none of that Subpop stuff had happened yet,” Stringfellow says. “All those bands were fairly obscure. We just happened to do what we do in Seattle, and then all these other bands that sounded nothing like us became popular.”
Stringfellow and Auer recorded a tape in an eight-track home studio belonging to Auer’s father in 1987 and optimistically titled it “Failure.”
“Jon played drums, I played bass, and we both sang and played guitars,” Stringfellow says. “We even duped the cassettes ourselves and sent them out.”
Although distribution was limited, “Failure” found a following. “We got fan mail from Japan and Poland,” Stringfellow says. “We were young and naive, but for the wimpy, tinny thing it is, it holds up pretty well.”
The tape was eventually released by the Seattle-based PopLlama label, and drew a bunch of offers from major labels, including Geffen, which signed the Posies to a minimum two-album deal.
Auer and Stringfellow recruited bassist Rick Roberts and drummer Mike Musburger, and with renowned producer John Leckie (XTC, Stone Roses), recorded “Dear 23” in Seattle last April.
The result is one of the year’s most engaging albums, bringing a contemporary edge to the mid-’60s British Invasion sound of groups such as the Hollies.
Auer and Stringfellow aren’t content to merely sing in tune – which they do wonderfully well. They also orchestrate their voices like a small choir.
Layer upon layer of acoustic and electric guitars further enrich the production, while the bass and drums keep things moving along briskly.
At times, “Dear 23” is almost too clever for its own good. The lyrics sometimes strain for poetic resonance or wallow in self-indulgence, though it’s hard to resist the self-deprecating humor of “My Big Mouth” and “Golden Blunders,” or the caustic wit of “Help Yourself”: “The spiteful words will heal with time/Eventually they rhyme.”
The clever, cynical lyrics and buoyant melodies recall the late ’70s heyday of Squeeze, Elvis Costello and XTC.
“We encompass a lot more now, but that’s the starting point for us,” Stringfellow says. “Playing in this style was not forced or faked. It’s what we loved since we were kids.”
Although the band embraces “pop music,” Stringfellow says the term has been misconstrued.
“Some people assume we sing these wimpy, dippy songs about love, like the Association or something,” he says. “But those people don’t share our definition of what pop is. Our music doesn’t pander to people who take Valium. What we are is a rock band based on songs.”
Implied is the belief that songwriting has become a lost art in recent years, overtaken by the amelodic aggression of loud guitars and screaming vocals.
“We’re not the easiest band to market” because of today’s musical climate, Stringfellow says. “We’re not a Top 40 band, and we’re not weird or wild enough to be on college radio. We straddle two universes, so it’s going to take people a while to figure out what we’re about.”
In their first tour of the States, the Posies should fill in some of those blanks. Listeners may be surprised at how aggressive they sound.
“We like to play our guitars,” Stringfellow says. “It’s the same basic songs we play on the record, except we don’t worry about how every little note is going to sound.”