Archive for the ‘powerpop’ Category

Album Review: A Kool Kat Kristmas, Vol. 2

Friday, November 28th, 2014

It’s that time of year again. In the USA, at least, the days after Thanksgiving is the unofficial kickoff of the Christmas season. And every year about this time, I find at least one Holiday-themed CD in my inbox. This year the disc of note is A Kool Kat Kristmas, a thirteen-track compilation of Christmas-themed tunes fomr as many artists, most of whom fall into the powerpop genre.

As is always the case, Christmas music can easily fall into the maudlin, overly gimmicky, or just plain awful. When it works – when something appears that’s worth adding to the Holiday section on one’s CD shelf – it’s pretty good. A few wonderful but lesser-known tunes are out there: Bill Lloyd‘s “Under the Christmas Tree” is a favorite that most people have never heard.

And for the most part, the tunes on A Kool Kat Kristmas work. The general approach that these artists use is to take a sturdy pop melody, add some bells, and put a Holiday-themed lyric to it. If you didn’t understand English, little beyond the tubular bells would hip you to the fact that these songs are about Christmas and such.

For the most part, the bands here don’t sound all that different from each other; listen casually – -while you’re doing other things, like, say trimming your Christmas tree or writing a review – and you might not even notice that the disc is a various-artists set until you’re several cuts into the album.

Taken as a compilation of powerpop, it’s quite nice: not the most remarkable collection ever, and certainly no Yellow Pills, but sturdy and enjoyable.

Several of the acts found here have had their music covered here on Musoscribe: The Bottle Kids, The Genuine Fakes, Dan Kibler, Stephen Lawrenson, Martin Newell – and not surprisingly, their offerings are among the strongest tunes on this disc.

The Bottle Kids’ “Christmas in Paris” actually includes an actual guitar solo, something few of these yuletunes bother with; it’s a gentle number that perhaps fits with the theme of the Holidays better than some rave-up powerpop tune might do. The Genuine Fakes’ “You Always Come Back Home” is a plaintive, elegiac number, and its gently unfolding arrangement is a highlight of the set.

The Connection‘s “Poor Boy” has a goodtime jug band feel reminiscent of Sopwith Camel or Spanky and Our Gang. And though a good half of the tunes on the disc lean toward the melancholy, Shake Some Action up the uptempo jangle quotient for the wonderfully Byrdsy “Christmas in the Sun.” In fact they may have done themselves a disservice by penning a song destined only for play around the holidays; it’s perhaps the best song on the entire set. And save for the goofy “ho ho ho” that kicks it off, The Tor Guides‘ “Beatles Vinyl” is a winner: chiming guitars and warm vocal harmonies provide backing for a sentiment most everyone can agree upon.

Stephen Lawrenson’s “Glad It’s Christmas” is perhaps the disc’s most musically ambitious number; the acoustic guitar runs are reminiscent of Led Zeppelin III. Wyatt Funderburk‘s “Cold” suggests Brian Wilson‘s musical approach. And while Martin Newell (or anyone, for that matter) would be hard pressed to top “Christmas in Suburbia” from his 1993 The Greatest Living Englishman, the stately and melancholy “Ghosts of Christmas” ends the disc on a memorable ­(if slightly eerie) note.

In keeping with the sensibility of the season, a portion of the disc’s proceeds goes to The Susan Giblin Foundation for Animal Wellness and Welfare. The album is available from Kool Kat Musik.

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A Thanksgiving Feast of Mini-reviews

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Customarily, I take Thanksgiving Day off from posting to the blog (it’s one of very few days in which I do that). In fact I generally write the pieces days in advance, so trust me: I am taking today off with family. But for anyone who tunes in today or after, I present a few short-form album reviews. The theme here is new music that seeks to pay tribute to music and/or artists from the past. My (as always, wholly arbitrary) word limit for each of these is 150 words.


The Call – A Tribute to Michael Been
Santa Cruz, CA-based straight-ahead rock band The Call was one of those curious bands who got some critical cred, despite other styles having taken over as the rock du jour (See also: Grant Lee Buffalo.) No less a light than Todd Rundgren regularly covered “And the Walls Came Down” – The Call’s signature tune – in live shows, for whatever reason (he also did Red Rider‘s “Lunatic Fringe,” so, I dunno.) Leader Michael Been died of a heart attack in 2010; his son Robert (of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) collaborated with the surviving band members. This album (CD+DVD) is a live concert document of that one-off performance. The set is expertly played and sung, but the mix is lifeless: as a direct result, the whole affair fails to excite as it should. In this role, Been sounds unlike his BRMC material, favoring a vocal style closer to that of Bono.


Here Comes the Reign Again: The Second British Invasion
I’ve always held that a good song is a good song, and stands up to reinterpretation in many styles. Clearly those involved in this album agree: a collection of 27 songs – from what we could rightly call the MTV music era – recasts pop songs in a modern-rock/pop format. There are lots of winners here; Chris (Fountains of Wayne) Collingwood‘s cover of The Dream Academy‘s “Life in a Northern Town” opens the set in delightful fashion. Several of the artists manage to add heft to what otherwise might be thought of as lightweight piffle (“Relax”). A few covers hew too close to the originals to make the exercise worthwhile (“West End Girls,” “True”), but overall this is an excellent set from the same high-concept folks who brought you Drink a Toast to Innocence. People on Vacations‘ shimmering rethink of Bananarama‘s “Cruel Summer” is delightful. A few missteps, nonetheless essential.


Light My Fire: A Classic Rock Salute to The Doors
Overstuffing a project with talent – the kitchen sink approach – is no surefire recipe for success. So bringing together 45 male rock stars for a Doors tribute doesn’t mean the results will be any good. As with many of these things, it’s a Billy Sherwood project; Sherwood (who plays bass on nearly all tracks) likely laid down reference demos for everybody to follow for their flown-in parts. Lesser lights (the late Jimi Jamison) share the spotlight with some big names. Larry Coryell reminds us that he can rock. Lou Gramm shows us why he’s not fronting Foreigner any more. Leslie West solos all over “Roadhouse Blues,” wasting Brian Auger‘s presence. YesTony Kaye and Steve Cropper? Okay: that’s an interesting pairing. Robert Gordon‘s vocals on “Touch Me” are positively gruesome. “Light My Fire” reunites Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman. The Jim Morrison-as-a-winged-Jesus cover art is good for a laugh.


Garden Music Project: Inspyred by Syd Barrett’s Artwork
This project differs significantly from the three discussed above. All of the sounds here are original music, inspired by the work of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett. But not by his music: no, the songs are a product of synesthesia (simply put: hearing colors) experienced viewing the paintings Barrett did in his cloistered, post-Floyd days. True, that concept reads a bit gimmicky, but the results are quite interesting. The four piece group that produced this work are European musicians following the lead of artist Adriana Rubio, who spearheaded and produced the session. The vocals (by guitarist Alexander Ditzend) are reminiscent of “Baby’s On Fire” era Brian Eno, and Stefan Ditzend‘s sax work recalls Psychedelic Furs circa Forever Now. Musically, the style does favor Syd-era Floyd, but then it would, wouldn’t it? It’s appealing, retro-minded modern psych, like Robyn Hitchcock used to do. Enjoyable even without knowing (or appreciating) the backstory.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 5

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Once again, it’s time for a run of hundred-word reviews. My inbox has been overflowing of late, and even after removing the material that I deem not worth my time (nor yours), I’m left with far too many discs to cover in my customary manner (500-800 word reviews). So herewith are twenty-five – count ‘em, twenty-five – brief, to-the-point reviews. The final set of five reviews looks at some contemporary artists – new releases – that fall loosely into the powerpop category.


Rick Hromadka – Trippin’ Dinosaurs
As leader of Maple Mars and then 75% of Ruby Free, Hromadka has created music characterized by his strong voice and knack for arrangements that straddle Cheap Trick power with an unerring melodic sense. On this album he goes the solo route, in the tradition of Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren et al. In some ways, Trippin’ Dinosaurs is a musical travelogue through Hromadka’s influences, but filtered through his sensibility. In the same way that keen listeners can spot a “Todd chord” in Rundgren’s work, Hromadka’s compositional style is distinctive in its own way, and that quality ties together the disparate songs.


Ransom and the Subset – No Time to Lose
Opening with a red-herring melody and arrangement that sounds straight out of Pet Sounds, this album quickly detours into shimmering powerpop territory. With the clear, out-front vocals of songwriter/guitarist RanDair Porter, the twelve songs on this disc will appeal to fans of Tommy Keene. Most of the tunes rock forcefully, but never at the expense of nuance and melody. The crystalline production values allow the individual instruments to shine, and the propulsive melodies equally emphasize the beat and Porter’s lyrics. There’s a whiff of Fountains of Wayne in Porter’s compositional approach; it’s most evident on “Leaving With You.” Great stuff.


Sunrise Highway — Windows
Sunrise Highway is singer and multi-instrumentalist Marc Silvert plus, it seems, whomever else is around at that given moment. But Windows still sports a unified sound. Powerpop is unlikely to ever set the music world on fire, but within the modest confines of the genre, discs like this deserve a hearing. The bass lines – regardless of who’s playing ‘em on any given track – owe a lot to Paul McCartney circa 1966. Silvert’s slightly nasal vocals evoke the Buddah stable of 1970s bubblegum acts, but the strong rock-centric songs provide enough heft to keep that vibe from overwhelming things.


Lannie Flowers – Live in NYC
It sounds as if there were no more than about fifty people in the audience at The Trash Bar for this show. But one listen to Live in NYC and you’ll sense just how fortunate those few truly were. Flowers’ three previous albums — studio efforts all, must-haves all – presented his preternaturally strong melodic sense, and his unerring skill with a hook. The chiming melodies are intact onstage, as is Flowers’ inimitable Texas vocal twang. These live versions aren’t all that different from their studio counterparts, but a powerpop fan can never hear “Around the World” and “Circles” enough.


The Jeremy Band – All Over the World
Generally, I’m completely put off by crypto-religious music; it’s simply not my thing, as it generally gloms its not-especially-welcome praise message onto other styles in a shamelessly derivative manner. But when a writer/singer such as Jeremy Morris crafts lovely and irresistible, jangly melodies of this quality, I’m willing to overlook his lyrical subject matter. (See also: George Harrison.) Its seems The Jeremy Band is a mainstay of David Bash‘s International Pop Overthrow, and that right there is one serious trademark of quality. This is an anthology of the group’s live odds and sods, but holds up as a cohesive collection.

That’s it for this week-long round of 25 capsule reviews. Expect more, though; that inbox of mine never seems to empty.

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Big Star Lives! with “Live in Memphis” (Part 1)

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

The story of Big Star – a band once so obscure, only critics, musicians and a small handful of in-the-know fans even knew of their brief existence – has now passed into popular culture.

I’ve always considered myself a hardcore fan of their general style of music: back in the early- to mid-1970s, I was into Badfinger, and I knew about bands like The Raspberries and Blue Ash. But at the time, I had never heard Big Star; the only time I even saw their name was in publications such as The Rolling Stone Record Guide. I didn’t have their records; I didn’t know anybody who had the records. They didn’t get played on the radio. And you couldn’t find the records, as they had quickly gone out of print. (As I have chronicled elsewhere, I stumbled upon “new old stock” copies of their first two LPs – still in shrinkwrap – in a record shop in the 1980s.)

In recent years, the Memphis group’s music has been championed by prominent musicians (among them Chris Stamey of The dB’s and R.E.M.‘s Mike Mills). Their two Stax/Ardent albums (#1 Record and Radio City) have been reissued multiple times (the most recent, just this summer, with contemporary liner notes from Mills). A 4CD box set of rarities, Keep An Eye on the Sky came out in 2009 to widespread acclaim. And Big Star got a proper, feature-length documentary done on them with 2012′s Nothing Can Hurt Me.

But all of this modern-day, well-earned appreciation was actually preceded by activity from Alex Chilton, vocalist/guitarist with Big Star through its original existence. Though the famously prickly Chilton had previously shown little interest in revisiting his Big Star years (much of his subsequent solo output seemed, at times, to be a repudiation of the musical approaches of both Big Star and his teenage group, The Box Tops), in April 1993 he surprised everyone by agreeing to a one-off reunion of the original band.

That performance – documented on the slightly-misnamed Columbia: Live at Missouri University – featured Chilton on guitar, plus original drummer Jody Stephens. (Bassist Andy Hummel either declined to participate, or wasn’t asked; no one’s sure, and Hummel passed away in 2010.) The pair were joined by two young musicians who had become Big Star acolytes of the highest order: Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, collectively known as The Posies. Though the duo had heard and read the name Big Star, they grew up without having ever heard Big Star’s music; once they discovered it, they were – like so many others of a similarly melodic musical predisposition – hooked for life. As Jon Auer told me recently:

“My first experience hearing Big Star — for real — was when I was working at a record store in Seattle. My manager at the time put on [a cassette of The Posies' debut album] Failure. He was a fan of things like NRBQ and Elvis Costello, and he really dug the tape. And he said to me, ‘Hey: have you ever heard this band called Big Star?’ I said I had heard of them. He said, ‘[deep sigh and pause for emphasis] Come. With. Me.’ He pulled out a vinyl reissue of Radio City – not an original copy like you have – and said, ‘here’s what I’m going to do. I’m gonna let you get off work now. Go home and put this record on. And listen to “September Gurls.’ It might sound like a cliché, but when I dropped the needle on that particular groove, it was like the feeling of meeting somebody and feeling that you’ve known them all your life.”

So it was that this foursome practiced up a set of Big Star tunes (plus some solo material from Big Star’s late and departed founder, guitarist Chris Bell) and did the “one-off” show. But the story didn’t quite end there, however: the reformed Big Star went on to do a number of high-profile TV and concert dates. That run was set to conclude with a date back in the band’s Memphis hometown, scheduled for October 29, 1994.

Those who had followed Big Star sensed that this would be an historic event. So arrangements were made to film the concert. Filmmaker and former Chilton bodyguard Danny Graflund convinced the mercurial Chilton to allow the filming (“I’m ready for my closeup,” Chilton deadpans onscreen before launching into “The Ballad of El Goodo”), and the show was a rousing success. But – as Graflund explains in his liner notes for the new Omnivore Recordings CD Live in Memphis, when he shopped a rough cut of the film to potentially interested parties,

“not a single label gave a flying fuck. No bites, no nibbles, not the slightest interest from any of the shits who could have done something back then. So I put the master tapes in a box, put the box in my closet, and there they stayed.”

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Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 2

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

I’m on my honeymoon this week, so I thought it would be a good time to offer up some backlog-clearing entries in my occasional series of Hundred Word Reviews. And though the musical styles are all over the map, there’s a theme of sorts this time: each of the acts reviewed has been covered previously, either via review or feature/interview.

Today’s three feature new music from British and/or part-Australian acts.


The Britannicas – High Tea
It’s thanks to the wonders of modern technology that an act such as the Britannicas could even exist: the members are scattered across the globe (USA, Sweden, Australia). But the infectious, highly melodic result of their internet-based collaboration belies that fact. Creamy vocal harmonies, beefy bass lines and chiming electric guitars are the order of the day. The music is richly textured, not unlike a slightly more jangly (and occasionally, slightly less rocking) Smithereens. For people who believe that the best kind of music came out of A Hard Days’ Night, The Britannicas’ High Tea will be manna from heaven.


The Penguin Party – Mesherlek
Don’t let the endlessly inventive packaging distract you from the fact that Mesherlek is simply wonderful. Equal parts snotty and uncompromising pub rocker (think: Graham Parker, early Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe) and wry commenter on lives writ small (think: Fountains of Wayne or Ray Davies), Dave Milligan has a seemingly bottomless well of wry/hilarious story songs wedded to killer riffage. Topping Sex Furniture Warehouse would seem an unachievable feat; with this album, Milligan and his mates have pulled it off. From the jaunty ska of “Do You Know Who I Am? to “Token Tree Hugging Ecological Song,” it’s essential.


Cleaners from Venus – Return to Bohemia
Martin Newell‘s witty observations are always wrapped in lovely melodies. His latest one-man effort is no exception. “Cling to Me” sounds like the demo of a hit tune (and is a bit reminiscent of Robyn Hitchcock‘s “Element of Light”), and the rest of the album is just as swell. Newell won’t likely win scores of new converts with this low-key affair, but those who’ve been hipped to the wonderment of his work will surely find plenty to treasure here. He has a huge catalog, but Return to Bohemia is as good a place as any for the initiated to start.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Five

Friday, September 19th, 2014

Continued from Part Four…

Bill Kopp: For a lot of people, myself included, Dear 23 and/or Frosting on the Beater are cited as the best Posies work. With Amazing Disgrace, you went in a much harder rocking direction. There wasn’t really anything on Failure that sort of hinted at that sort of future. Was the change a sort of natural progression for you both, or was a conscious decision: “hey, let’s rock out on this one.”

Ken Stringfellow: It’s very easy to explain. When you listen to Failure, you’re listening to a duo who had never toured, never played in a club. We had played two acoustic shows. By the time of the release Dear 23, we had been playing as a local band quite a bit, but had done very minimal touring. But then we toured and toured and toured throughout the US. And then we played empty clubs for a year, and then we toured with The Replacements, which was obviously much better. And then after that we were a touring juggernaut. Venues were packed. And it upped the ante on our live show. The energy you have playing in clubs for four people night after night, I’m sad to say, is different than playing to 500 or 800 people who are really into it. We gained confidence, and we enjoyed playing intensely. And that resulted in a more rock kind of presentation.

Jon Auer: It wasn’t a conscious move, not at all. I wish I could say The Posies were calculated, but we really weren’t. When I look back at things, I see that we just went where the music took us. Every one of our records from that era is incredibly different. Amazing Disgrace is an eclectic bunch of songs, if you really listen to it. By the time we made that record, we were a little angrier. We had gone from youthful enthusiasm to early adulthood, a time when you’re figuring out how the world works for you.

Even from the time of Dear 23, if you had seen us onstage, we were a rock band from the get-go. By Frosting on the Beater, it became more about the visceral side of things; there was still craftsmanship, but it was more about the energy.

Bill: If you’ve got a rhythm section behind you, kicking your ass, then it’s going to rock harder…

Jon: And playing in front of people makes a difference. You can be precious about things in the studio, but I’ve found that doesn’t transfer live. I want energy when I see someone play live; otherwise, what’s the point? I can stay home and listen to the record.

Bill: The last Posies album was Blood/Candy, and that was four years ago…

Jon: It’s really cyclical with The Posies, because we both have a lot of things going on otherwise. It’s a long term relationship, so it’s good for us to be able to do all these other things. We’ve got these reissues happening, but we don’t want to just be pushing the old; we want to push the new, too. So while I can’t say when, I feel like it’s going to be sooner than later. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see something new [from The Posies]  in the next year…or two.

Jon and Ken also talked with me at some length about Big Star. We reflected on their experiences as young musicians discovering the band for the first time, and then upon later years as members of the re-formed lineup. I’ll share those in a feature that will be out later this year, around the time of the release of a Memphis Big Star concert. – bk

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Four

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: There’s a track of yours on Yellow Pills Volume 2, “Saying Sorry to Myself.” To my ears it has all the hallmarks of the first album. I like the way you take a bit of the lyric of “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and stand it on its head. Does the song date from the period around the making of Failure, or is a later recording?

Ken Stringfellow: It’s funny that you bring that song up. We haven’t played it in ten, fifteen years. I just had someone write me from Japan today, asking me if I had the lyrics to that song handy. I said no; I hadn’t even thought about it in fifteen years. By the time we got around to recording “Saying Sorry to Myself,” it was with a full band. It was done, I think, at Egg Studios, an eight-track studio that was owned by the owner of PopLlama.

Jon Auer: It’s interesting that you picked that song to mention. That’s one that kind of got thrown by the wayside. If you consider that it was an eighteen year old singing it, it does have the feeling of someone a little bit older. I’m glad that you appreciate that one.

Ken: That song followed on the heels of Failure, as our songwriting transitioned from the chirpy, bright- eyed, bushy-tailed thing that Failure is. Every line in “Saying Sorry to Myself” is clever wordplay. That clever thing was very appealing to us, because we were not grown up or experienced enough to put that much emotional depth into words. But things started to happen shortly after that; we matured, and some of the darkness that we knew from our young lives started to make its way into the lyrical content. The mood of things got a little deeper even by our next album.

Just as Failure came out, and we did find a bass player (Rick Roberts) and drummer (Mike Musburger), I moved into an apartment in the house that they were sharing. And a month later Mike moved out to his own apartment, and Jon moved in. We had a central room in that house to rehearse in. I dropped out of college and took a job that wasn’t too demanding so that I could have my living expenses covered. And that summer of 1988, we really got into writing a lot of songs. A lot of those songs were in the vein of “Saying Sorry to Myself.” And in that house we wrote a lot of songs that didn’t make it onto our 1990 album Dear 23. We were more dialed into things; three of the four of us worked in record stores, so we had access to a lot of things.

And in turning this chirpy, clever kind of melodic pop songwriting into something with more depth, it was at this time that we were introduced to the music of Big Star. And that was thanks to some of the more wise fellows who worked in those record stores. And that changed our songwriting: here was great, exuberant pop music with a lot more depth and wistfulness, a whole ‘nother emotional dimension. And it was made by people who were our age: when #1 Record came out, Alex Chilton was about 20. They set our bar to a whole different level.

The subsequent intertwining of The Posies and Big Star and REM is getting into the quantum physics field. It’s so odd that I went from such a distant observer of these bands to entering their lives.

Jon: I’m the guy who had to go through the archives for all these reissues that are coming out. After Failure, eventually Dear 23, Frosting on the Beater and Amazing Disgrace are all getting this reissue treatment from Omnivore Recordings. And I think that “Saying sorry to Myself” has definitely got to be a bonus track on the Dear 23 reissue. I had forgotten we had so much stuff; these reissues are not going to be like just repackaging. We’re going to have a hard time figuring out what not to put on these things.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Three

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Ken Stringfellow: Listening to Failure, it would be hard to tell what we were listening to. Because the album has a very sixties vibe to it, kind of like if some sixties beat group moved to California. But I can give you a breakdown that will show you where some of these songs came from. I can tell you what I think they’re direct rip-offs of, and you’ll see through the sixties-ness of them to the original source.

“Under Easy” sounds a bit like The Byrds or something like that. But it really is [based on] a Bob Mould song. There’s so many Bob Mouldisms in the chord progression and melody; it’s just that the production fools you into thinking it’s sixties-based. We were absolutely obsessed with Hüsker Dü; they were heading into a more songwriter-y vibe; they had left the punk sound behind.

Jon Auer: Two bands that we absolutely worshiped were The Replacements and Hüsker Dü.

Ken: “At Least for Now” is maybe a little closer to its source. It’s a less agonized version of a Paul Westerberg song. Imagine it as a slightly more cheerful version of “Here Comes a Regular.” We were massive Replacements fans. And what was a nice turnaround is that when this record got released as an LP and started to get national airplay, it really became a favorite of Paul Westerberg’s. He took us on tour shortly thereafter.

“I May Hate You Sometimes” seems like it’s some sort of Beatles ’65 thing, but if you listen to the wordplay and the nonstop vocals, it’s a little bit of Elvis Costello. It’s a title that has so much irony in it that it’s not clever enough to be great irony.

Jon: You can certainly hear the influence of The Beatles, but any record made past a certain time has that influence on it. If you wanted to compare “I May Hate You Sometimes” with “The Word” from Rubber Soul, we copied the cowbell, the percussion track. It’s pretty much an homage; we just ripped ‘em off.

Ken: Of course we had the sixties music influence because of our parents and their record collections – those were the first records we were encountering – but at the time, we listened to a lot of the great, clever songwriters of the UK scene: Squeeze, XTC. In fact the drum intro in “Paint Me” is directly lifted from XTC’s “Ball and Chain.”

Jon: A band that cannot be underrated as an influence upon us at the time is XTC. So while we were into the sixties scene, we were influenced by artists who had been influenced by it as well. Skylarking is one of my favorite records; so much so that on our album Frosting on the Beater, we tried to sequence the songs in the same way that they did on Skylarking. I’m giving you way too much information; you get the gist.

Ken: “The Longest Line” is [based on] a Smiths song on Meat is Murder. And you can hear REM influence on “Believe in Something Other than Yourself,” even down to the chord progressions. It’s dangerously close to the chorus of “Radio Free Europe.” And there’s a thing in “What Little Remains” with a kind of reverb-y backing vocal; that’s directly ripped off from REM’s “Pilgrimage.”

I was really into the California punk scene with Black Flag and Dead Kennedys; and Blue Note Records stuff was a big influence on me…even though there’s no bebop on this album. We were into a little bit of everything. Being small town people as we were, in the pre-internet age, music listening was based on opportunity, on what things came your way. At this time, we were still learning. We weren’t old and experienced enough to have a body of work to synthesize into new things.

I love musical quotes; now I like to weave a musical pun into every album I make. But I vary it, and most people never discover them. At that time we were less subtle.

Bill Kopp: Your vocal harmonies have long been the main signature of The Posies. When you started out – and now, even – did you have to carefully work those individual parts out, or did they evolve naturally as you worked on the songs?

Jon: The singing is probably one of the most natural things about The Posies. This is going to sound horrible, but Ken and I were in the choir at our school. So even though we weren’t singing together in a band per se, we were learning about things like harmonies and counterpoint. To even further the geek ante here, we had extracurricular activities together that involved singing: we were in a thing called jazz choir. And to make us sound even geekier, we did that in the mornings before our first class. We didn’t wait until after school; no, we got up an hour earlier to go to this thing.

Bill: So I suppose whether it was conscious or not, there was a fair amount of musical theory underpinning your vocal arrangements on Failure

Jon: Well, again, I’m going to give credit to that early choir training. It certainly didn’t hurt.

Ken: The harmony vocal parts came very quickly, very easily. The chord progressions lend themselves very easily to being made with harmonies. That was always there with us; they were not labored over. There’s a lower second harmony in the verse of “Under Easy.” That just happened on the spot.

Jon: If people ask me what makes The Posies unique, I’d say its the harmonies. We did all of the vocals for the album in one weekend. Lead, harmony and backing vocals – all of them for that record – were done in a two-day period. All twelve songs.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Two

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I thought it was a nice bit of contextualization to include Veronika Kalmar‘s snarky and negative review in the liner notes of the Failure reissue. It might be tough for you to cast your minds back to that time, but how did you react when you first read it in that magazine?

Jon Auer: I have to be honest: I was really hurt when I read that review. As a naïve, music-loving innocent eighteen year old, I didn’t consider that people could try to do you harm publicly. It wasn’t just a bad review; it was a targeted piece. It really cut us down.

Reviews are ultimately opinions, but people read them, and when it’s put into the context of a magazine, it’s an important thing. Everybody’s got an opinion, but the don’t have a vehicle for it. Well, of course now they do; it’s called the internet. There’s another great quote – I’ll paraphrase it because I don’t have it handy – that suggested the magazine made a poor choice of reviewers. [the letter writer] likened it to having a skinhead cover an Al Green concert. I thought that was pretty great.

Ken Stringfellow: Well, something had to come up; things were just going too well for us. And the story didn’t really look believable. It really is unbelievable what happened to us. So it looked like there was some payola, or some weird anti-marketing going on. There must have been a master plan to make a band from Bellingham — a duo as unlikely as us – to suddenly be everywhere at once. It defied the laws of credibility. We were two cuts deep into Seattle commercial radio a hundred hours after releasing this homemade cassette; it just didn’t make any sense. And over the course of that summer, it grew so rapidly. If we did a free show where kids could attend, we’d have thousands of people showing up. And we could fill clubs by that summer.

Jon: We became vilified by a certain segment, but it worked in our favor in a way: we kept the letters section in the magazine alive for six months.

And, you know, Veronika apologized to me. She said she didn’t think the review was fair, though she didn’t think it was the greatest record. So there you go. Sometimes you have to wait awhile in life for things to reveal their true colors.

Bill: And in her note included in the liner notes for Failure‘s new reissue, she does refer to Dear 23 as “a masterpiece.”

Jon: But she still thinks the lyrics are too angst-ridden and teenager-y. And you know what? I’ve got to agree with her. Some of the lyrics are that way for me, too. But I was sixteen years old when I wrote half of those songs. We sort of incubated for a couple of years in Bellingham, writing songs until we had enough to make Failure.

Ken: We weren’t from the same music scene as the bands we’d come to know as the recognizable SubPop bands. They were all nascent at that point, just about to happen. Those guys were all just a few years older than us, so they had played in bars; they could hang out in bars! So they had that scene going; Seattle and its environs didn’t really have an all-ages scene. We weren’t old enough to hang out in bars, so nobody knew us. So, who were these dorky-looking dudes playing this dorky music, anyway? It took awhile. So I think Veronika’s reaction at the time was based on an assumption that there must be something un-DIY about us.

The music’s good, I think, but it seemed like more than it just being good: a whole bunch of dominoes fell at once.

Jon: We were hand-dubbing cassettes, and selling them out of our backpacks. We moved like 800 copies that way. That’s not insignificant without anybody helping you.

Bill: In hindsight, Failure is really pretty out of step with what people now think of as the Pacific Northwest scene of that era. What sort of music were you listening to in the period when you were writing the songs that ended up on that first album?

Jon: Oh, jeez. There were things we were listening to that might make you think Failure was the obvious result. But you’re talking about a couple of guys who listened to everything growing up, who went through every phase. We’re just fans of songs and good music. And that comes in any genre, any shape, size or form. At the time, that would have included anyone from Elvis Costello to The Beatles. Or Depeche Mode, as you can maybe see when you look at the picture on the back of the album. We went through a quasi-goth phase.

In fact, I’ll go off on a tangent here about that picture. It tells you a lot about us then. We were always doing our own thing, slightly out of step with whatever was happening at the moment. We had a complex mixture of elements.

Bill: I look at that picture and I think, “Boots by George Harrison, hair by Robert Smith.”

Jon: Y’know what? Please put that in your piece. Because it’s brilliant.

My first job was working in a record store. I had been one of those kids who went to the record store every day after school. So eventually they just gave me a job. And at the time I looked like I was probably in The Cure or some goth band. But I was into everything musically. I was there when the first CDs arrived in the store, the first ones ever. And you know, of course what some of the first CDs that came out were: reissues of the Beatles albums. It was a pivotal moment; it made those records ripe for rediscovery. I grew up with my parents’ Beatles records, but to get these digital versions and explore them, we started to do that.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part One

Monday, September 15th, 2014

While grunge or alternative might be the first rock genres that spring to mind when one thinks of the 1990s, an unlikely group from the Pacific Northwest had already gained a foothold – both commercially and critically – with their brand of melodic guitar-based pop. The Posies – eventually a band, but originally just a duo featuring teenagers Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow – recorded and released their first album, 1988′s Failure – in what would come to be thought of as an early example of DIY success.

Failure would go on to be reissued by a proper label, and the group’s fame grew, thanks in part to their being championed by influential tastemakers who counted themselves as fans. But it has always been the music – and the pair’s trademark vocal harmonies – that have brought The Posies their well-deserved success. Failure has just now been reissued yet again, this time by Omnivore Recordings, who have appended eight bonus tracks to the CD, along with fascinating liner notes. In my conversation with Ken and Jon, I asked them about the development of that first album, and how it fit into the arc of their constantly evolving musical style. And I learned that the coming months will see a good bit of additional Posies (and related) material released on Omnivore.

Bill Kopp: You were both short of 20 years old when you recorded Failure. I really like the production style of the album: unadorned, gimmick-free, and always in service to the songs. When you cut the album, what kind of goals or aspirations did you have? Did you think you might make the big time, and if so what would “the big time” have been for you?

Ken Stringfellow: When we started recording Failure in 1987, I was 18 and Jon was 17. We had a very fortunate situation in that Jon and his dad had put together a small studio in their family home; that was an incredible gift. We had an eight-track analog tape machine. The production limitations are more or less based around track count. We recorded eight tracks of music, and then bounced that down to a cassette, believe it or not. And then we used those mixes from the cassette on two tracks, and did six tracks of vocals. That approach dictated how the record sounded.

As far as our aspirations, we really made this record as a demo. Basically, we couldn’t find anyone who wanted to play in a band with us.

Jon Auer: I probably wouldn’t have wanted to play with us, either!

Ken: We couldn’t really explain our concept: it was so gimmick-free that there really wasn’t an “elevator pitch.” Other than writing great songs, and what’s the elevator pitch for that? So we really just wanted to find people to form a full band with. The demo would show them our tunes so that they’d kind of get the idea.

As we realized this might actually be a record, our friends who heard it were feeding back to us that, hey, this is something very special, things happened very fast. We put it out as a DIY cassette, it got on commercial radio, we had offers for shows. Everything happened at once. In ten days we went from zero to being able to fill venues. It was insane, and we saw none of this coming. We were completely overwhelmed, as you could imagine.

We wanted to be part of this local label called PopLlama. They picked it up and reissued it on LP. We wanted to play this local festival called Bumbershoot, and we did. And all that was as far ahead as we had thought. We already had interest from some major labels, but we hadn’t even conceptualized something like that. We just got carried along in the slipstream for a couple of years.

Jon: The “big time” was never a consideration. We were just very much thinking of modest goals in the beginning. We hoped we’d get to open for a band we really admired, and still do: The Young Fresh Fellows.

What I liked about Failure is that it was made in a very pure environment. It had nothing to do with wanting to get noticed in a major way at all. It was something that we did because we wanted to do it. Maybe we weren’t very smart; maybe we should have considered other things – like the potential trajectory of our career – more [than we did]. But we were just having a good time. And we were lucky because I grew up in a home that had that small but powerful home studio.

And the realization of all of our eventual goals was something that happened naturally; it was never a case of us trying to force things.

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