Ken Stringfellow really is a master of the modern pop idiom, which should come as no surprise considering his involvement in about a hundred different pop projects. Okay, I exaggerate. Maybe it's only ninety-five. I'm probably thinking of producer Mitch Easter (where does he find the time to produce every second new CD being released?). The point is this: these two know their stuff, and what's more, they make it seem effortlessly easy. While many struggle to create melodic pop with a harder edge, few succeed. Right now, the current marketplace is flooded with mediocre attempts at such. But since the on-again, off-again Posies were off at the time of this project (though they're on now), Stringfellow had time to work with Easter and get this second solo release out the door. I didn't know what to expect -- but I'm pleased to report that Touched not only is a tangible audio pleasure, it might be Stringfellow's best effort to date.
In the late '80s, Ken Stringfellow and pal Jon Auer created a demo basement tape that caught the attention of Seattle's PopLlama Records and eventually became The Posies' first release, Failure. Three subsequent albums were given an even wider release on Geffen's DGC label (Dear 23, Frosting on the Beater and Amazing Disgrace). Musicians and critics found plenty to like, but the general public didn't get the message. Declining sales prompted DGC to drop them and so The Posies returned to PopLlama in 1998 for their fifth and allegedly final effort, ironically titled Success.
Since then, Stringfellow has been one busy guy. He joined the revamped version of Alex Chilton's Big Star, touring with them on occasion. He had a solo album in 1997 (This Sounds Like Goodbye) that explored pop from a different perspective, giving vent to anger in song with facets of hip-hop and electronica. He also continues to be a part of Scott McCaughey's ongoing project The Minus Five. Stringfellow began touring as a sideman for R.E.M. in 1998, and also appears on their CD Reveal. Some of the other bands he's been involved with include Twin Princess, Seattle's Bootsy Holler, The Orange Humble Band, Lagwagon, White Flag and Chariot. Did I mention he also produced the CD of indie/folk upstart Damien Jurado?
He also formed the power pop ensemble Saltine, who put out a promising EP last year entitled Find Yourself Alone. When Saltine crumbled, that's exactly how Stringfellow found himself. With a healthy amount of material written for this group that no longer existed, he teamed up instead with pop maestro extraordinaire Mitch Easter and decided to do it himself. The results: 11 superb songs, largely sweet and unobtrusive, hearkening back to an earlier Stringfellow sound and away from his more recent grunge influences. Easter conducts the proceedings with gentle care, and his choices are masterful. If God is in the details, then this could be a religious experience.
For instance, the opening track "Down Like Me" has a lap/pedal steel guitar from Rob Preston that adds just the right amount of country accent to the wistful proceedings. Perfect organ accompanies the crisply toned guitars on the track "This One's on You", a quietly mesmerizing musical treatise on love lost and new love. One of my favorites in this very solid collection, it features some of Stringfellow's best vocals, delivering sincere anguish like: "There's so much you could repair / but you don't care who you leave behind in your sad affairs / But this new love could fit you like a glove / and this one's on you / Say goodbye to the self you knew".
Stringfellow regulates his emotive voice like an instrument here, going from subtle and quiet to clean and powerful, using it alongside his harmonies and catchy riffs as yet another weapon in his effective pop arsenal. It's particularly on display with the R&B-tinged "The Lover's Hymn", where the upfront vocals recall shades of McCartney. On the catchy "Uniforms", he sounds a bit like Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook at times. Easter and Stringfellow's years of experience provide credible pop references from the past four decades scattered among the tracks here. "Fireflies" uses sonic layering in its repetitive middle, sounding like something captured from the late '60s. Check out the fine instrumentals backing up "Spanish Waltz", from the retro-springy organ and guitar opening to the chunky mid-section, and then back to the quietly effective coda. Praise must also go to Tony Shanahan on bass and Eric Marshall on drums, for helping create these modern gems with a nod to the past.
For those of you absolutely in love with that "Golden Blunders" sound, there's even a pocketful of Posies here in the new "One Morning". Close your eyes and you'll think you're listening to Dear 23. There's lots of sadness here, romance and sentiment and moods aplenty and it's all as colorful as Stringfellow's own hair. Lyrically, Stringfellow flies back and forth between the seemingly pedestrian and the challengingly confounding, but he's never predictable and that's good. Again, it's likely a result of experience: he often works an extra word or phrase into the standard musical measure, making for greater interest. Stringfellow and Easter make this journey fun: a pretty pop triumph full of small, perfect musical moments running the lyrical gamut from hope to despair.
The last track is called "Here's to the Future", a soberly optimistic anthem that asks "what have you got to lose / whichever path you choose / keep in mind that the fates are kind / if you let them be so / here's to the future, my friend / and all that it holds in store / I hope that each day from now on holds more". If this CD is any indication of what we can expect in the future from Ken Stringfellow, we're all in for a very bright tomorrow. As such, my recommendation is that you get Touched today.