The Posies are back. Or were they ever gone? Two years after announcing they would never play together again, here is proof that breaking up is hard to do. Over the past few years, they had played several “last shows”, but it seemed that finally the singer/songwriter partnership of Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow was over. Each went their separate ways, working on solo projects, and in the case of Stringfellow, joining fellow Pacific Northwesterner Scott McCaughey as a sideman on R.E.M.‘s 1999 tour (and latest album, Reveal). A couple of one-off get-togethers later, the duo played an all-acoustic show in early 2000 (which spawned the live album In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Plugging In). The popularity of this show, combined with time on their hands, led to an acoustic tour, which took them around the world. Inspired by the tour, they planned to record two new songs for a single, which was extended to become this EP.
From the beginning, the Posies modeled themselves after Lennon and McCartney, always sharing songwriter credit. Though they have existed mainly as a four-piece unit, with a revolving rotation of bass players and drummers, it has always been Auer and Stringfellow’s band. Each brought their own songs into the mix, with each album divided evenly between them. Nice Cheekbones and a Ph.D. is no exception to this, with each songwriter contributing two songs, adding a cover of the Byrds’ “Lady Friend”. The inclusion of this song is in keeping with the Posies’ long history of recording and covering their favourite bands, from the Zombies to the Damned to Big Star (who were a major influence in their songwriting, and who, ironically, they now perform with sporadically).
The songs on this record reflect the songwriters’ grasp on the basic tenets of pop music: The sadness of love and the love of sadness. Whether singing about love lost and gone (“No Consolation”, “Lady Friend”), the ills of this ready-made readily-available world (“Chainsmoking in the U.S.A.”), or the deceit of beauty (“With Those Eyes”), there is a self-reflective melancholy here. But with ringing guitar chords, sunny harmonies and bare bones but effective production, all is not gloomy. The Posies as songwriters seem to strive to write the perfect pop song everytime out. This is beautiful, bittersweet pop, a la Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows”.
What is also evident is that the originals here are the products of two different writers, each with their own style. Over the course of their records, Auer and Stringfellow developed into two entities, with the majority of their collaboration happening in the studio. These four songs could have been part of their respective solo careers, just as much of their solo output could have become Posies material. It seems they cannot escape each other, and their whole appears to be worth more than the sum of their parts.
The opener, “Matinée”, is the disc’s strongest track. Using the play as metaphor for the stages of life, Stringfellow structures the song itself like the three acts of a play. With each verse, another phase of his life is acted out. Starting from the cynicism of youth (“Each time I’ve saved my hopes up / They’ve raised the price again”) and ending with fond reflection on the life he just lived (“Not once did I envision / I’d be so entertained / Or that I’d want to see it again and again”). It is full of the clever word play long associated with their lyrics. Stringfellow’s other contribution, “With Those Eyes”, also follows suit, and carries one of the catchiest hooks in recent memory.
Jon Auer’s “Chainsmoking in the U.S.A.” is the most overt rock song on the record, but as is the rest of the songs here, still acoustic-driven. With its repetitive chorus “It’s getting way too easy”, the song is an indictment of the problems of society, from a personal perspective. There is a definite world-weariness to the singer’s voice, backed with aching beautiful vocal harmonies. “No Consolation” is the final here original here, with Auer’s plaintive voice front and center over an almost alt-country sway of acoustic guitars and even a bit of banjo thrown in.
All in all, one can only hope this is just a teaser of more to come from the Posies, in whatever incarnation they appear in next. If it’s the end, then it’s a fair swansong, something unconventional and not quite perfect. Which is why they will likely be back.