The first ten years of the recorded life of the Posies, from Failure to Success, was a series of turning points, but there may have been none bigger in their timeline than the one right in the center, Frosting on the Beater.
From the beginning, John Auer and Ken Stringfellow determined their own context. The original Bellingham, Washington, heart-on-sleeve songwriting pair, the appearance of these two goth rockers decked out in leather jackets, pointy boots and Robert Smith haircuts photographed in 1988 contradicted the assorted Anglo-pop tics of their songs. Swooped up by the deep-pocketed DGC on the merits of Failure, their shoestring debut, Auer and Stringfellow, barely in their 20s, set about making Dear 23, the kind of richly layered meisterwerk most bands take their time to work up to. It was an auspicious major label breakthrough, full of instantly familiar melodies like “Golden Blunders” and “Suddenly Mary”, but, in a way, it also didn’t point to any clear path forward. Almost three years elapsed before the Posies released their next album.
Dear 23 had few peers in 1990, surrounded as it was by the last strands of hair metal, slick pop, and jagged underground rock. There is certainly an edge of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” to the shift in the approach of Frosting on the Beater, but two staunch contrarians such as Auer and Stringfellow wouldn’t have simply caved into alt-rock’s demands. Intervening years of regular touring had built up their muscles, and original drummer Mike Musburger and new bassist Dave Fox brought the sinewy aggression of the new material out even more in the studio. Having gone all in on “pretty” with Dear 23, it is tempting to think that Frosting on the Beater was the result of the Posies challenging themselves as songwriters to be just as embraceable when wrapped in sandpaper.
“After Dear 23, the world understood that power pop could be more than bright, peppy, early Beatles nostalgia,” writes Craig Dorfman in the liner notes to Omnivore Recordings’ reissue of that album, released earlier this year. “It could go deep and dark, could swirl, shimmer, or shine…. The new power pop wouldn’t tell you that everything is going to be okay.” That was even more true of Frosting on the Beater, and this attitudinal trajectory of the Posies would reach its peak a few years later in the belligerent hooks of their gloriously surly fourth album, Amazing Disgrace. (Disgrace will also get the deluxe reissue treatment later this year, crammed with demos and rarities, which in Frosting‘s case here include early versions of a few songs that would finally surface on Success.) There’s always a tale to be traced through a band’s discography, but there was something particularly open about the Posies, and each of their albums from this decade seemed to reveal something different about their place in the music industry at the time.
Every time “Flavor of the Month” came on radio station 107.7 The End in Seattle in the spring of 1993, which was fairly often, the airing felt uniquely loaded. On the surface, it could be heard as a great pop tune about great pop tunes, but it had a bite. “In a way, the song pokes fun at the very thing the song is trying to be (a hit),” writes Auer in the liner notes here, noting how the track was the result of being hounded by their label to write a bigger potential single for the album, an irritating nudge that he now agrees with. (Amazing Disgrace‘s “Ontario” would be another semi-sarcastic stab at the radio.) The value of a given pop song isn’t necessarily determined by whether it’s built to last or just a “flavor of the month,” but it’s clear what side of that debate the Posies would fall on. Still, it is really only the title and key chorus lyric, “Getting easier to swallow / And harder to spit out”, that gives a solid indication of the cynicism simmering under the song’s bounce.
Hearing it in the geographical heart of the grunge boom, however, the context was all too obvious to ignore. Plenty of locals had scoffed at the media oversaturation and lines of musicians moving into town, but, along with Mudhoney and their much more overt “Overblown” (all-too-fittingly situated on the Singles soundtrack), the Posies were one of the few to lay down such sentiments on record. Outsider-insiders from their beginning, their sound had little in common with the majority of what was going around the Northwest scene in the late 1980s, yet they were embraced. Young as they still were in ’93, they also had a right to be skeptical, given that they had already found their way to the majors a year before all hell broke loose in Seattle.
There is almost something of a missionary bent to Frosting on the Beater, an effort to spread the values of classic pop songwriting to the Alternative Nation hordes of the time by disguising brilliant melodies in scuzzy distortion and ripped jean shorts. The possibility of a million Nirvana fans singing along to “Dream All Day” and “Definite Door” wasn’t far-fetched, given Kurt Cobain’s own indie-pop proclivities. The album, though, is front-loaded with the five biggest sugar rushes, and gets incrementally moodier from there: the road-weary dirty psych jam that closes “Burn & Shine”, Stringfellow’s reflections on adolescent bullying in the deceptively upbeat and uber-catchy “When Mute Tongues Can Speak”, his reaction to the death of a friend, 7 Year Bitch’s Stefanie Sargent, in the heavy “How She Lied by Living”. Thankfully, the initially dark, spare atmosphere of the closing “Coming Right Along” gives way to Auer’s hopeful lyric, letting the light back in at the end.
Not only did the sonic-harmonic dichotomy established on Frosting on the Beater work exceedingly well, it became more or less the template dynamic for the Posies from then on. Twenty-five years later, it still naturally fits them, as their lively spring/summer US tour this year, complete with the Frosting-era line-up of Musburger and Fox, has shown. Tapping into the zeitgeist just enough, the Posies subsumed those early XTC-isms and other influences into a distinct mode and found their own sense of the timeless.