Rock ‘n’ roll has rarely been as smart, soulful or satisfying than it has in the hands of The Posies. During an on/off career that’s spanned three decades, the Seattle-rooted outfit, led by musical polymaths Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, have shaped and re-shaped their muse, creating one of the more compelling catalogues in modern pop.
From the very beginning, the band sired a succession of classic LPs – including the now seminal Dear 23 and Frosting on the Beater– that served as joyous rejoinders to a generation mired in grunge. And yet, for much of their history, the band has been playing a game of genre tag semantics, dodging facile and limiting descriptions like “power pop” and “retro pop” — terms which initially greeted their 1988 debut, Failure.
“We started out as teenagers, twenty-some-odd years ago, and we made this lovely, very innocent kind of record that existed in stark contrast to the prevailing winds that were blowing in Seattle at the time,” notes Stringfellow. “Ever since then, people tend to think of us as this very sunny vintage-sounding band. But we really haven’t been that way for a long time.”
“There are so many influences and styles woven into what we do and we’ve never made the same record twice, not even close to it,” adds Auer. “And our new record is as sophisticated and challenging as anything we’ve ever made.”
Shot through with widescreen majesty, marked by a vast musical breadth and scope, as well as an endless supply of haltingly beautiful melodies, The Posies’ seventh and latest album, Blood/Candy, should shatter any narrow perceptions of the band, once and for all.
Following a professional and personal split between Auer and Stringfellow at the end of the ‘90s, the second act of The Posies’ career began with 2005’s triumphant reunion effort, Every Kind of Light. The group’s first studio album in nearly a decade was a musically plangent and lyrically politicized album — informed heavily by the foibles of the Bush Administration and the Iraq War – that reintroduced The Posies to the world in grand fashion.
In the ensuing years, the band members pursued various projects on their own, spread throughout the world, with Stringfellow working from his homebase in France, Auer settling in Seattle, drummer Darius Minwalla in Vancouver, Canada, and bassist Matt Harris in California.
Writing together once again, Auer and Stringfellow began crafting a new batch of The Poises’ material during the fall of 2009. Blood/Candy was eventually birthed during a furious ten-day session the following spring, as the band decamped to El Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain and the famed Paco Loco Studio.
A veritable treasure trove of classic gear and worldly ambience, a hothouse atmosphere permeated the sessions, helping push The Posies into heretofore uncharted musical waters. “We lived together the whole time we were there, in an apartment 20 feet from the studio door — just ate, slept, and made the music,” says Auer. “There’s nothing like locking yourself in a studio you’ve never been to before in a foreign land with a bunch of unusual instruments and noise-making devices to up the experimental ante.”
The album’s centerpiece in that regard is the eclectic “Accidental Architecture.” “I think it’s maybe the most emblematic piece in terms of how we’ve tried to incorporate new sounds. It works almost as a kind of visual entertainment,” notes Stringfellow.
An epic of musical movement, the song marshals a wide selection of styles, touching on traditional madrigals and the jazz-cool of Michel LeGrand’s score for The Thomas Crown Affair, while nodding to everything from Jethro Tull to Sufjan Stevens along the way.
The track sets an “anything goes” tone for the record, which is blessed with an abundance of musical riches, from the swirling pysch-flecked “The Glitter Prize” to the lush string-fueled gem “Holiday Hours,” the kaleidoscopic anthem “Cleopatra Street” to the dazzling pomp-pop romp “Licenses to Hide.”
A smattering of stellar guests also lend their talents, including the angelic-voiced Kay Hanley of Letters To Cleo, and Lisa Lobsinger of Broken Social Scene. Even punk legend Hugh Cornwell checks in with a standout vocal turn, having been drawn into the proceedings by Matt Harris’ Stranglers-influenced bassline on “Plastic Paperbacks.”
Once the Spain sessions wrapped, the band continued working together and separately in half a dozen studios – from Paris to Seattle to Los Angeles – adding and refining parts and pieces, creating a teeming multi-textured sonic backdrop.
“This record has more of a ‘Science Fiction’ sound to it, if you will, more buzzes and electronic bells and whistles percolating throughout,” says Auer. “We wanted to keep everyone’s eardrums guessing with this, always on alert for the next left-of-center waveform.”
Threading all that together are the unmistakable, almost genetic harmonies of Auer and Stringfellow, which reach new heights in the emotive piano-ballad “For The Ashes” and the majestic rock thrust of “Enewetak.”
As usual, the easy alchemical grace of their music only serves to heighten the lyrical profundity at the heart of the songs. “This band has captured so many different stages of our lives,” says Stringfellow. “I was in my 30s when we made our last album, and in my 20s when we made the album before that. And now, in my 40s, there all kinds of things that have come into play in terms of maturity and experience and emotions. It’s a totally new palette to work with as a songwriter.”
In a real way, Blood/Candy is the perfect reflection of The Posies’ evolution into a purely creative vehicle. “We do a ton of other projects besides The Posies and that’s a very healthy thing,” says Auer. “The result being we only do The Posies when we really want to now, never because we feel obligated, only when we’re inspired. It makes a world of difference to me. It keeps it fresh and enjoyable and it makes it feel necessary.”
In many ways The Posies’ current state mirrors the perfect economy of Big Star, the cult Memphis pop band that Auer and Stringfellow helped revive and drive for 17 years, before the tragic passing of frontman Alex Chilton this past March. “With Alex, when we did Big Star things, I’d see him maybe twice a year, and that didn’t seem to matter,” says Stringfellow. “It always seemed to be perfect timing, every time. And I feel like it’s that way with The Posies now as well.”
Ultimately, the magic of The Posies lies in the special chemistry between Auer and Stringfellow. Like any great partnership, it’s one that’s had its ups and downs, stops and starts, over the years. But those experiences have simply served to strengthen the bonds between them.
“Starting the band as kids, we developed our whole social world around each other and this group. And to erase all that at one point and to come back to it was quite healthy,” says Stringfellow. “I’ve learned a lot about relationships in general in that my friendship with Jon has been so unbreakable.”
“At the core of our relationship is a long history, a history that can’t be erased, something that belongs only to the two of us,” says Auer. “It’s what makes our collaboration unique.”
But Blood/Candy is not just a monument to a great past, but rather a marker of a thrilling present, and the promise of a future that holds much more in store creatively. “I definitely wouldn’t have predicted that the band and our collaboration would be so fertile at this point. But that’s the most exciting aspect of what we do,” enthuses Stringfellow.
“One thing I’ve observed: it doesn’t feel like we’ve been together as long as we have,” notes Auer. “And, some days, it even feels like we’re just getting started. I think that’s a very good sign.”