The Upshot: A pair of power pop classics that helped make the grunge-encrusted tail end of the 20th Century just a little more bearable.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Ah, the Posies. With a seemingly bottomless bag of hooks and sentiments that veered easily between clever and heartfelt (and often both at once), the Bellingham/Seattle band should be mentioned in the same breath as luminaries like ELO, Cheap Trick and Big Star and contemporaries Jellyfish (and its spinoffs), Velvet Crush and Matthew Sweet. Instead the group had the mixed fortune of hailing from the grunge mecca that inaugurated the era of “alternative rock.” Certainly, the Posies didn’t suffer, garnering a sheaf of rave reviews and plenty of fans, even if they never quite broke out the way their champions hoped. But being one of the leading lights of the nineties alt.rock boom somehow keeps them out of the halls of the power pop masters, or at least the main wing – a minor mischaracterization, to be sure, but one that seems to put them on the bottom rung of a ladder they’ve long since climbed.
And as uncool as it may be to say it, the Posies were at their best during their major label era. Not that the rest of the band’s indie catalog isn’t delightful, but it was their three-album stint on Geffen Records subsidiary DGC that really put the band on the map. Whether that was due to the influx of corporate cash that allowed them to hire top flight producers and get great sound or simply due to the rush of singing and songwriting excellence pouring out of chief Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow then is up for debate (we tend to lean toward the latter, though it’s probably some of both). Regardless, the trilogy of Dear 23, Frosting on the Beater and Amazing Disgrace – the first two of which having just been reissued – is not only the best work of the band, but some of the best guitar/power pop of the twentieth century.
Dear 23, the Posies’ second album, made a splash when it was first released in 1990, but under somewhat false pretenses. By this time the band had evolved from Auer and Stringfellow’s bedroom duo into a scrappy four-piece rock & roll outfit with bassist Rick Roberts and drummer Mike Musburger, but that wasn’t reflected in the grooves. Instead, producer John Leckie (XTC, Thee Hypnotics, Stone Roses) augmented the arrangements with layers of acoustic guitars for an almost folk rock feel, and added his signature psychedelic wash to the mix, making the entire record nearly sound like it comes from another continent. The results may not have been true to the Posies’ live sound, but it works like gangbusters with the songs. The massive-sounding acoustics form a wall on which the glorious anthem “Any Other Day” is painted, while the folk rock sheen fits perfectly with the bittersweet “Suddenly Mary.” “Golden Blunders” and “My Big Mouth” transcend the designation “power pop” with bright hooks and creamy harmonies, while “Mrs. Green” revels in gentle acid psychedelia when it’s not rocking out. “You Avoid Parties” and “Everyone Moves Away” strip things back down to the original duo, coming off like big-league version of Auer and Stringfellow’s cassette recordings, while “Flood of Sunshine” becomes a widescreen, lighter-waving singalong with unexpected guitar heroics. A few awkward lyrics aside, mainly in mispronunciations necessary to fit rhyme schemes, there’s not a bum note played or sung or a track worth skipping.
As with most Omnivore reissues, this one includes generous extras. The number of bonus tracks is staggering, taking up a third of disk one and all of disk two, with a big ol’ bucket of demos (including two of “Apology,” one version from each songwriter), covers of Big Star and the Hollies, some otherwise unreleased tunes, and the original version of “Will You Ever Ease Your Mind,” which wouldn’t reach full flower until Amazing Disgrace. There’s also an enthusiastic essay from Craig Dorman and, best of all, track-by-track commentary from Auer and Stringfellow that enlightens the original songs.
For 1993’s Frosting on the Beater, the Posies hired Gumball/Velvet Monkeys leader Don Fleming to give them a muscular sonic aesthetic more in keeping with their live shows. While some critics and fans accused them of trying to come to terms with their hometown grunge (as if there weren’t dozens of former college rockers trying to do the same thing at the same time), for the band it was simply a closer reflection of their original aim. In that light, this is probably the purest of their power pop moves – loud guitars, big melodies and hooks, a simmering energy set to explode any moment. The record contains some of their catchiest and most blazing rockers: “Flavor of the Month,” “Definite Door,” the nearly hitbound “Dream All Day,” the irresistible “Solar Sister.” The rest of the record is not the easy listen of prior work, as Auer and Stringfellow began exploring knottier melodies that don’t throw hooks right into the listener’s faces. The results are mixed – some songs simply don’t stick to the ribs as strongly as the band’s best. But others – “Burn & Shine,” the enigmatic and atmospheric “Coming Right Along” – prove themselves worthy of any Posies hall of fame, and the best tracks make Frosting as essential as its predecessor.
As with Dear 23, this two-disk version overflows with bounty, including another wave of demos and unreleased songs and sterling liner notes. It’s worth noting that a large portion of the extra tracks were originally released on the box set At Least At Last, but given how long out of print and expensive on the secondhand market that project is, that’s hardly a sin. Frosting on the Beater 2.0 is another excellent reissue and an indicator that the upcoming take on Amazing Disgrace will also be something special.
DOWNLOAD: “Any Other Way,” “Flood of Sunshine,” “Golden Blunders,” “Solar Sister,” “Dream All Day,” “Flavor of the Month,”