More blood, less candy
Anyone who followed the trajectory of the Seattle-band group the Posies during the ‘90s understands that they knew their way around an irresistible hook. Whether it was well-crafted balladry (“Apology”), delicious power pop (“Dream All Day”, “Solar Sister”) or anger-fueled rage (“Everybody is a Fucking Liar”), the Posies were the ne plus ultra of purveying workman-like pop-rock songs, especially in lieu of their hometown’s fascination with the particular sludge of grunge music at the time. Blood / Candy, however, shows the group – led by Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow – taking a slightly different approach to songcraft as opposed to their usual power pop route. Instead of hooks that sink into your brain, there are angular jabs that linger. Instead of wall-to-wall high-octane pop songs with gorgeous melodies, parts of this album are written in minor keys. Instead of being a relatively sunshiny affair, much of this record is more autumnal – something to listen to while wearing a wool sweater.
Blood / Candy, the band’s seventh studio album and first release in five years, sees the Posies even reaching further back into their bag of influences in the canon of popular music: instead of the Raspberries, Todd Rundgren or Big Star, the band here also rips pages from the sheet music of the Beach Boys and even the Beatles. There’s a real paradigm shift in the sound of the Posies of the 2010s and the results of that change are middling at best. There are stellar songs to be found in the 12 tracks of Blood / Candy, but if I may bring up a certain f-word – filler – well, there’s a bit of that too. It’s an album with a real multiple personality disorder, partly as a result of being recorded in various locations around the globe, necessitating the use of no less than eight recorders and mixers. That’s about halfway to Loveless, for those keeping count.
While the album was born more as a combination of the chops of Auer and Stringfellow writing in advance of the album’s recording for the first time since 1996’s Amazing Disgrace, as opposed to being more of a band-written release as was 2005’s Every Kind of Light, there is a whiff of collaboration here. The first three tracks of Blood / Candy feature vocal contributions from such guests as the Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell, ex-Letters to Cleo chanteuse Kay Hanley, and Broken Social Scene’s Lisa Lobsinger. However, with the exception of Lobsinger’s contribution on “Licenses to Hide”, these guest turns are pretty much pushed to the background, as though Auer and Stringfellow didn’t want to lose their uniqueness of voice. Blood / Candy is, clearly, a Auer/Stringfellow production, and the sound of a bunch of guys now in their 40s struggling to exert their musical identities in a musical landscape that has largely passed them by, excepting critical acclaim for such minor classics as Dear 23 and Frosting on the Beater, the latter of which the band revisited in its entirety on a recent tour.
Blood / Candy boast some fine additions to the Posies’ catalogue, such as “The Glitter Prize”, which might be the strongest song on the record with its propulsive beat and a warm radiance in which the band proclaims “I’m ready for daylight”, even though the song is a little melancholic – as though the band is trying to escape and outrun a bad case of the blues. It’s the perfect soundtrack to driving a car on a fall day down a near-empty expressway, the kind of piece that makes you want to put the foot to the pedal. The jangly, upbeat “So Caroline” is another talking point: the title seems to reference the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No” but is a much more sunshiny, infectious piece of pop that invites you to sing-a-long and takes its place among the great songs of the Posies’ past. “Holiday Hours” is a gentle acoustic guitar strummed track with a great squiggly keyboard part in its chorus, a strong piece of angular songwriting where instrumentation is used to contrasting effect, and is an experiment that works on a album that is a little far out at times.
As that might indicate, Blood / Candy offers a series of serious missteps that almost kill the mood of the album. The prime candidate for derision is the aforementioned “Licenses to Hide”, which changes tempos as many times as a trucker driving an 18-wheeler through stop-and-start traffic shifts gears. With “Licenses to Hide”, you’re almost getting three or four songs stuffed into one, as though Auer and Stringfellow couldn’t contain the amount of musical ideas they wanted to place or, well, hide into one tune. It starts out as a Paul McCartney-esque piano ballad, before vamping into something out of the Supertramp catalogue, before turning into an up-tempo Billy Joel tune. It’s a song deeply steeped in the progressive sounds of the ‘70s, but its shifting approach to pop songwriting is jarring. (Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti did a similar turn on “L’estat (Acc. To the Widow’s Maid)” on this year’s Before Today, but at least that tune had a sense of whimsy to it.) If there’s a candidate for worst song this writer has heard in 2010, “Licenses to Hide” would be it.
Meanwhile, “Accidental Architecture” suffers from a similar problem: it changes its beat all over the place and feels like a ‘70s prog rock song (“Magic Dragon Theatre” by Utopia comes to mind) married with the heady bombast of a Broadway musical, coupled with lyrics that feel stuffed into the piece without much in the way of any breathing room. Album opener “Plastic Paperbacks”, which is a concise summation of their love of John Lennon distilled down to two-and-a-half minutes, is interesting but offers a discordant chorus that goes nowhere – as does an extremely truncated guitar solo that lasts all of four bars. Meanwhile, the closing track “Enewetak” shows the Posies wearing their admiration for the Beach Boys perhaps a little too proudly. While the song boasts fine, soaring harmonies, the coda to the piece is an almost exact rotoscope of “God Only Knows”.
Blood / Candy is the mark of a band that isn’t content to retread past successes, which is an admirable trait. However, some of the experimentation and attempts to travel further afield fall flat, which leads to the conclusion that the band needed more editors than mixers on this album. As a result, Blood / Candy occupies a strange place in the work of the Posies. While long-time fans will probably be happy to get something, anything, from the group, considering the long lag time it took for this album to be readied, those curious about the Posies and haven’t had much exposure to them would be better directed to the pure, unabashed power pop of Frosting on the Beater. Blood / Candy might be the sign of a band stretching out, it frequently stumbles over its own two feet. Indeed, this album more or less offers songs that are bloodied and bruised, akin to the taste you get from biting your tongue, as opposed to delectable candy that melts in one’s mouth. Given that the band has albums in their catalogue called Failure and Success, this record will have those familiar with the band reaching for a word to describe the middle ground between those two positions. Alas, for those who came of age with “Dream All Day”, that’s a pronouncement that’s bound to be nothing less than a bit of a disappointment.
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