As Mary Poppins once posited, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. And the Posies have spent over twenty years delivering the tartest, most intricate lyrical pills in the sweetest of packages.
That’s a bit of a gross generalization to describe Seattle’s greatest pop band, but it does boil down the band’s appeal–and it addresses the central reason as to why they alternately built a devoted fan base, yet never quite broke into the mainstream.
On the surface, it seems like some sort of major incongruity in the fabric of the universe. After all, band leaders/songwriters/singers Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow burst onto the Northwest music firmament as pop wunderkinds in the late 1980’s, brandishing peerless vocal harmonies and British Invasion-influenced melodies that lodged themselves into the ears with near-parasitic insidiousness. The Posies’ 1990 major label debut, Dear 23, still stands as one of the finest records to come out of this region in the last three decades: To these ears, it’s an epic (and near-perfect) pop album that mixed Auer and Stringfellow’s time-honored sixties influences (The Beatles and The Zombies) with a pinch of Cheap Trick and the acerbic wit of Elvis Costello. Hell, a year or two later, one of the Beatles even covered a song from the record.
The cathartic wail of Grunge was just beginning to emanate from this neck of the woods, however, and a band that couched smart lyrics about relationship angst and the mounting realities of an adult world within carefully-crafted pop songs seemed off-kilter with the prevailing tide. Simply put, a significant portion of disenfranchised kids found the primal scream of Nirvana and Soundgarden more relatable. Dear 23 gained a solid foothold on the College Music charts, but Nevermind became the accidental voice of a generation.
Frosting on the Beater, the Posies’ 1993 follow-up, sounded like a concession to the zeitgeist at first blush. Auer’s and Stringfellow’s guitars roared more often than they chimed, Mike Musberger’s drums thundered with almost chaotic force, and the several of the songs exceeded the five-minute mark with extended squalls of feedback, left-field tangents, and somber starkness. Ironically, the band derided by one local wag as the Northwest’s answer to the Partridge Family had cut an album that was–in its own way–messier and more unpredictable than Nirvana’s immortal pop-culture calling card, Nevermind.
In music geek parlance, if Dear 23 was the Posies’ Sgt. Pepper’s, Frosting on the Beater was their White Album. Critics smitten by the sonic perfection of the Posies’ 1990 platter griped about the inconsistent racket generated by their follow-up (Rolling Stone magazine, significantly, gave Frosting on the Beater a dismissive two-star review when it first came out).
Time has a funny way of vindicating misunderstood records, though. Today, Frosting on the Beater has aged famously, largely because it achieved a louder, riskier, gutsier sound without short-changing Auer and Stringfellow’s harmonic and melodic gifts one iota. And at least two-thirds of the record’s songs are stone masterpieces. “Dream All Day,” the record’s opener, swirls and careens like the best psychedelia. “20 Questions” counters its pit-of-stomach romantic jitters with power-pop feistiness. And the masterful “Lights Out” sounds like an angel’s lullaby, intermittently bum-rushed by a drunken pack of hooligans bashing out T.Rex riffs. More than any other Posies record, Frosting on the Beater cemented their rep as Seattle’s most significant power-pop combo.
Auer and Stringfellow have amassed pretty amazing resumes as musicians and producers since Frosting. They served a joint fifteen-year stint backing Alex Chilton as half of Big Star, and each released solo records of their own. Auer produced other artists over the last two decades, and Stringfellow did time as a touring member of REM. They’ve also released several other terrific records as the Posies, the most recent of which (2010’s Blood/Candy) shook the tree by wedding their impeccable harmonies with engaging detours into Beach Boys oddball lushness and adventurous instrumentation.
The band will surely touch down at multiple points of their catalog during their gig at the Neptune tomorrow night, but word around the campfire is that they’re playing that beautiful mess of a record, Frosting on the Beater, in its entirety. To paraphrase one of its finest songs, it should be a definite door to another dimension.
(Not to sound like a broken record, but that old mantra of “Arrive early if you can” really applies for tomorrow night’s show, too. Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs occupy the opening slot with Americana that takes a few loud pop jabs of its own, and any fan of the Posies’ sound owes it to themselves to catch the middle set by this town’s other greatest pure-pop band of the hour, Curtains for You.)