By Brett Milano, The Boston Phoenix, 21 December 2000
If Posies leaders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow had shot themselves after making it, their band’s last major-label album, 1996’s Amazing Disgrace (Geffen), just might have been recognized as the milestone it was. It rivals Nirvana’s In Utero as the most salient statement of the disillusion and betrayal that went with the waning and the co-opting of alternative rock in the ’90s. And it was a minor shock that this harsh, bruised-sounding album came from what seemed a harmless pop group. About the time it came out, I recall seeing Auer and Stringfellow perform its “Everybody Is a Fucking Liar” at a South by Southwest show filled with industry types who seemed blissfully unaware that their number was being called.
After Disgrace flopped, there was nothing left for the Posies to do but release a dispirited final album — titled, with characteristic irony, Success (Pop Llama) — and call it a day. I’d like to be able to report that the band have gotten some payback, but that hasn’t really happened. Interscope did release a greatest-hits set (Dream All Day) earlier this year, but the label has also sent the three original Geffen albums (Amazing Disgrace, Dear 23, and Frosting on the Beater) to the cutout bins. And though the Posies have been honored with a four-CD box set — At Least, At Last, on the pop-obsessed Not Lame label — the liner notes make it clear that the set was bankrolled by a single, enthused fan.
Comprising demos, live recordings, and outtakes, At Least, At Last has the feel of an epic concession speech. It may be the most self-depreciating box set ever released — along with the somewhat apologetic title, there are photos of a sewer and a toilet on the front and back covers. The first thing you hear on disc one is a blown cue and an “oh shit” preceding an early live track. And the liner notes are more self-critical than one might consider healthy. A typical Stringfellow comment on one of his own songs: “Do the words `inconsequential fluff’ have any place here?” “I Don’t Want To Talk to You,” easily the most grabbing of the early demos (the Posies emerged from Seattle around the same time as Nirvana) that fill the first disc, is derided by composer Auer as “proof that a catchy tune doesn’t always equal a good song.”
It’s telling that Auer doesn’t like “I Don’t Want To Talk to You,” which obviously was written around its chorus hook. Once they found their groove, the Posies wrote subtler songs that didn’t reveal themselves up front. This approach makes for some dodgy numbers among the early demos, but it bore fruit by the time they hit the studio. “Trace My Falls,” one of the few top-quality leftovers here, has a bare-bones arrangement — one vocal, acoustic guitar, droning organ — and is haunting despite its lack of a real hook. “Diary of an Insecure Girl” introduces the mysterious type who figures in most of the Posies’ love songs, and it includes a quotable lyric from the cutting-room floor: “I don’t know her name/She doesn’t know her identity.” In the future they’d find less blatant ways to say the same thing, but that line’s wide-eyed naïveté has its charm.
There aren’t a lot of lost treasures in this retrospective. The treasures were all on the Geffen albums, and the demo versions of the various Geffen tracks (including more than half of Amazing Disgrace) are clearly rough drafts. Especially in the early days, the Posies were a studio-driven band who knew exactly what they were doing when they were given a major-label production budget. In particular, John Leckie’s production on Dear 23 brought into play an ornate sonic æsthetic that you won’t hear in Auer’s rough acoustic take of that album’s best song, “Suddenly Mary.” As with most projects of this nature, the best moments are the ones that catch the band with their guard down: there are enjoyably scrappy live tracks from early on in the group’s career and a stunning Hüsker Dü-ish “Solar Sister” from the end, plus some fun covers (of Cheap Trick, Blondie and Devo) made for never-realized tribute albums. And the finale, which features muzak versions of two Posies semi-hits rendered Kenny G-style, is a hoot. Typical of this band to wrap up their career with a joke at their own expense.
Except that the Posies never really quite ended. True, the band are no longer together, but the Auer/Stringfellow partnership soldiers on. In fact, those two are back to doing it the way it all started, as two guys playing their songs on acoustic guitars — which is how they appeared at the Middle East last summer. The highlight of that show came when the duo played two of their most uplifting songs back to back: the Posies original “Coming Right Along” and their cover of the Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child.” With mainstream success now out of the question, this was a joyful moment for its own sake — the sort of thing that comes from living to fight another day.