Overlooked: The Posies
Overlooked are playlists and write-ups that focus on artists that didn’t get the attention their music deserved during their time. Click below on the streaming service of your choice to listen to the playlist as you read along.
In the late ‘80s the modern rock scene was struggling, with nothing having come along to supplant the demise of new wave. Niches were bubbling along in local scenes, such as punk, goth, low-fi, and no wave sounds, but no genres of note had stepped forward to draw ears away from the pop, dance, R&B, and glam metal acts that were dominating the charts at the time. In the US, salvation would come from the American northwest as a blend of guitar-pop, classic rock, and punk was evolving into what would become grunge. A variant of that sound would be the return of one of the most enduring and irrepressible forms of rock: power pop. The Posies stood firmly in that ground and contributed to the resurgence of rock, modern rock, and power pop yet was never able to achieve a leading spot commercially within that wave. The fact that The Posies never achieved greater success was baffling to me, since Frosting on the Beater was a must-have LP of the era and deserving to be on any ‘best of’ lists of the 1990s.
The Posies have essentially been a duo of Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, whose harmonies and guitar work have defined the band’s sound throughout their career. They met while in high school in Bellingham, Washington, a city of about 50,000 in the late ’80s and located on the coast halfway between Seattle and Vancouver. The two kept in touch and started writing songs while Ken was attending the University of Washington, forming the band in 1987. Jon’s father was a university music professor and the two built a home studio together, which was where Jon and Ken first recorded the demos that would become The Posies first album, 1988’s Failure.
In 1988 they developed into a quartet with Mike Musberger joining on drums and Arthur ‘Rick’ Roberts on bass. After playing around Seattle and the surrounding areas they signed with indie label, PopLlama, and released their debut album. At this point their sound was raw and unformed, not quite nailing the melodies and power arrangements of their later music. The album was uneven and didn’t distinguish itself from the rest of the sub-par modern rock of the era. However, their approach, mixing acoustic and electric guitar, melodies, and an energetic pop style picked up the strains of power pop established over the past twenty years by the likes of Big Star, Cheap Trick, Pretenders, XTC, and Squeeze. Their harmonies harkened back to the ‘60s and bands like The Hollies.
By 1990, the music world’s eyes were shifting to Seattle and the blossoming grunge scene. Soundgarden had signed with A&M in 1989 and Nirvana signed with David Geffen’s DGC Records in 1990, and while the scene hadn’t yet exploded into the huge commercial success that it would in 1991, the labels were already scanning about for the local talent. The Posies also signed with DGC and released their second LP, Dear 23, in August of 1990. It was produced by John Leckie, who had been working in studios with a who’s who of legendary artists since the early ‘70s and had established himself as a leading producer of modern rock since the late ‘70s, having worked with XTC, Simple Minds, and Gene Loves Jezebel. At the time he came to work with The Posies he was at the forefront of the rise of guitar-pop in the UK and Ireland, having worked with That Petrol Emotion, Lilac Time, Trashcan Sinatras, The La’s, and most notably The Stone Roses and their 1989 ground breaking debut LP. Dear 23 was noticeably better than the prior album right from the first notes as the opening vocals, energy, melody, and strength of “My Big Mouth” set the tone for a very strong album. “Golden Blunders” was the single and reached #17 on the US Modern Rock charts, showing promise for the band breaking out into the wider consciousness.
Therefore, the release of 1993’s Frosting on the Beater likely came with big expectations. Seattle and grunge had exploded over 1991 and 1992 and more than a few bands had made it big as much by their affiliation to Seattle as their talent, as observed in The Posies’ song, “Flavor of the Month.” The album was produced by Don Fleming from New York power pop band, Gumball, but who was also helming albums for like-minded artists such as Teenage Fanclub, Screaming Trees, and Sonic Youth. Despite the high expectations and incredible quality of the album, Frosting on the Beater didn’t break through. “Dream All Day” reached #4 on the Modern Rock chart and the album cracked the top 100 in the UK, but otherwise, save for a fervent, core following the album wouldn’t achieve the wider attention it so richly deserved. It was a power pop masterpiece with one flawless song after another, rich with meaty power chords underpinning catchy melodies and harmonies. The band’s unevenness and penchant towards watered down passages were left behind as one smartly crafted, punchy song after another was ripped through. “Solar Sister” was the very definition of the power pop model. The only reason I can think that the album didn’t break through was that by late ’93 the grunge scene was waning and success was less guaranteed for northwest artists. While The Posies were never a tight fit to the core grunge sound, they should have still benefitted from their Seattle ties. My knack for loving albums that rarely achieved broader success was intact. Even today, its songs still spark joy for me when they pop up on shuffle.
The Posies’ line-up changed during this time as Rick Roberts was replaced by Dave Fox during the album’s recording. Fox wouldn’t stay long, leaving in 1994 as did Mike Musburger, leaving just the original duo of Jon and Ken. By the end of 1994 Brian Young joined on drums and Joe Howard on bass, returning The Posies to a quartet. That year also saw a couple more songs come out, one on the soundtrack of the Gen X themed movie, Reality Bites, and another on a great compilation, DGC Rarities, Vol. 1. “Open Every Window” was an unreleased song most likely recorded in the early days of recording Frosting on the Beater, as many of the original songs were abandoned.
1996 saw the release of the fourth album, Amazing Disgrace. It was good, but not quite at the level of the prior effort. It was a little more raw and leaned further into the rock edge of their sound. The melodies weren’t as smooth and the harmonies eased off, lessening the Beatles-esque quality of their pop sound. The album still had many great moments and was a great rock record, holding to a more timeless pop-rock format. The single “Ontario” failed to register on the charts, most likely because it was a bit too formula for the band’s fans and not catchy enough for mainstream audiences. It was a decent song but there were so many better tracks on the album. One thing the album did for the band and its followers was broaden their sonic range, offering more variety of tempos and passages within the songs. Although it wasn’t obvious to me then, listening to this album now I’m struck by how much some songs sound like the Foo Fighters, which, of course, was another act making its way forward, quite successfully, in the post-grunge years.
After extensive touring for Amazing Disgrace, other than participating in a remake with Burt Bacharach of his song, “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” for the first Austin Powers movie in 1997, The Posies broke from each other and worked with other bands or on solo material. Reconvening in late ’97 amongst rumours of a break-up, the band put together an album of reworked, previously unreleased songs. The resulting album, Success, was released in 1998. The Posies were no longer on a major label and were back on PopLlama. The LP failed to make an impression. Consistent with the band’s now well-established sound, it didn’t offer anything new or compelling but was still a solid listen. Songs like “Somehow Everything” and “Start A Life” were good but wouldn’t have sounded out of place on any of their recent albums, probably because they were written during those sessions. After a tour for the album the band did decide to call it quits and the members headed off to work on other projects. Stringfellow notably played with R.E.M. from 1998 to 2005, guesting on two albums.
However, the break wasn’t long as Ken and Jon got together in Seattle for an unplugged show in 2000 which led to an unplugged tour and then a return to the studio to record some songs, resulting in the 2001 EP, Nice Cheekbones and Ph.D. DGC also put out a box set and greatest hits compilation in 2000. The duo also released an EP, Private Sides, in 2003 but not under their band name. The Posies returned to a quartet with the additions of Darius Minwalla on drums and Matt Harris on bass and toured off and on over the next few years.
The next album, Every Kind of Light, arrived in 2005 and the extended break between albums seemed to breathe new life into The Posies’ sound. For the first time there were keyboards, and the power pop structures were downplayed in favour of songs with greater tempo changes and tonal variety. The opening track, aptly titled “It’s Great to Be Here Again,” sounded like they were taking a page out of the Charlatans UK songbook. The single was “Conversations,” which for me was a miss, but there was plenty else to dig into throughout the album. The great power pop sound was still there, such as on “All in A Day’s Work,” but there were also bluesy, garage rockers like “I Finally Found A Jungle I Like” and the light, melodic groove of the closer, “Sweethearts of Rodeo Drive.” Though it lacked the sparkle and consistency of Frosting…, it was perhaps their most polished and ambitious offering of their career. Of course, as was likely expected by this time, their music wasn’t going to find a big fan base.
Since then there have been two more albums, Blood/Candy in 2010 with Minwalla and Harris filling out the line-up, and Solid States in 2016 recorded with a healthy list of guest musicians (the album is not on Google Play Music). Their sound modernized and their power pop base now leapt into variations with piano, electronics, and greater ranges of tempo and styles. They seemed to be a band comfortable in their sound, driven by consummate songwriters and performers consistent in their craft. The Blood/Candy LP included guest vocals from Hugh Cornwell (ex of The Stranglers), Kay Hanley (from the band Letters to Cleo, guesting on the song “The Glitter Prize”), and Canadian Lisa Lobsinger (from acts Reverie Sound Revue and Broken Social Scene, guesting on “Licenses to Hide”). The albums were refreshing and contemporary while keeping the familiar appeal of their guitar and harmony rock sound. There has always been something about their sound that made me think of other bands and songs, such as on “Notion 99,” in which the guitar riff reminded of a cross between “Driver’s Seat” and “Pretty Woman.” Yet The Posies always achieve their own, strong sound and are continuing strong, still touring regularly, and playing to a solid base of fans, especially in Europe.
An interesting aspect of The Posies story has been Jon and Ken’s relationship with Big Star. The Tennessee band, a pioneer of the power pop sound in the early ‘70s and led by Alex Chilton, also flew under the radar until bands like The Posies and Teenage Fanclub started praising them as an influence. Chilton and fellow original member Jody Stephens reunited in 1993 with Auer and Stringfellow filling out the line-up. The four played together for seventeen years, releasing a new album in 2005, until Chilton passed away in 2010. It was an interesting combination of the old and the new of power pop acts. Adding to The Posies and Big Star stints, Ken’s time with R.E.M., and then their duet and solo work (Auer has released an album and an EP and worked with many other artists, while Stringfellow has issued six solo LPs and also played on an impressive list of others’ releases), their output has been prolific.
Why The Posies never achieved more success puzzles me, but I’m pleased to see they’re still going and have amassed an impressive legacy of great music. They were an important part of the last great wave of guitar rock and one of the most impressive music scenes in rock history. They are also one of the most consummate power pop bands you’ll hear, and that alone makes them worth your attention.
The Playlist - song \ album (year)
Blind Eyes Open \ Failure (1988)
I May Hate You Sometimes \ Failure (1988)
Paint Me \ Failure (1988)
My Big Mouth \ Dear 23 (1990)
Golden Blunders \ Dear 23 (1990)
Any Other Way \ Dear 23 (1990)
Everyone Moves Away \ Dear 23 (1990)
Dream All Day \ Frosting on the Beater (1993)
Solar Sister \ Frosting on the Beater (1993)
Flavor of the Month \ Frosting on the Beater (1993)
Definite Door \ Frosting on the Beater (1993)
20 Questions \ Frosting on the Beater (1993)
How She Lied by Living \ Frosting on the Beater (1993)
Going, Going Gone \ Reality Bites Soundtrack (1994)
Open Every Window \ DGC Rarities Vol 1 (1994)
Daily Mutilation \ Amazing Disgrace (1996)
Throwaway \ Amazing Disgrace (1996)
Please Return It \ Amazing Disgrace (1996)
Song #1 \ Amazing Disgrace (1996)
Placebo \ Success (1998)
Grow \ Success (1998)
Matinée \ Nice Cheekbones and Ph.D EP (2001)
It’s Great to be Here Again \ Every Kind of Light (2005)
All in A Day’s Work \ Every Kind of Light (2005)
I Finally Found A Jungle I Like \ Every Kind of Light (2005)
Sweethearts of Rodeo Drive \ Every Kind of Light (2005)
The Glitter Prize \ Blood/Candy (2010)
Licenses to Hide \ Blood/Candy (2010)
So Caroline \ Blood/Candy (2010)
Notion 99 \ Blood/Candy (2010)
We R Power \ Solid States (2016) - not on Google Play Music
Unlikely Places \ Solid States (2016) - not on Google Play Music
Titanic \ Solid States (2016) - not on Google Play Music
M Doll \ Solid States (2016) - not on Google Play Music