Lesson in Survival

Seattle's Posies go their own soft way, no matter who likes it

If slavishly adapting to trends has increasingly become the "alternative" norm, then count the Posies among the ever-declining number of real nonconformists. Since 1988, they have quietly and persistently gone about their business as Seattle's sensitive, pop-minded outcasts, apparently relishing their role as that grunge-soaked city's milder option. Privately, though, being outside the hometown mainstream made the leaders of the Posies somewhat uneasy.

The softy tag was a little embarrassing, admits Ken Stringfellow, who shares singing, writing and guitar-playing duties in the Posies with longtime friend Jon Auer. "Especially in Seattle," he says. "Nobody was doing what we were doing."

Today, Stringfellow is willing to acknowledge his discomfort. But a few years ago he wasn't so open. In a 1993 interview, he casually brushed off any concern about the Posies' apparent frailty compared to chest-beating contemporaries such as Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. By that time, the band's delicate reputation -- admired by critics, slagged by just about everyone else -- had already leaked past the Seattle city limits and, in some circles, generated sneering insults. Los Angeles rowdies Thelonious Monster sank the lowest, referring to Stringfellow on CD as "some faggot from the Posies." (It's rumored that the insult may have had less to do with music than with Stringfellow's stealing the girlfriend of Thelonious Monster lead singer Bob Forrest).

With the benefit of hindsight, Stringfellow can safely say the wounded geek routine was all part of a plan. "We're definitely into being different," he claims. "I've never felt a direct kinship with any other band."

The new Amazing Disgrace may be the Posies' most purposeful statement of deviance yet -- and it's far from wimpy. In their third Geffen/DGC outing, Auer and Stringfellow have created a meandering and often malicious monster, from the blunt, seething attack of "Hate Song" and "Everybody Is a Fucking Liar" to the more discreetly bitter musings of "Daily Mutilation" and "Throwaway." Amazing Disgrace is a celebration of defeat; an emotionally charged muddle of reluctant highs and harrowing lows; a lumpy, semisweet batter of angelic harmonies, heavenly hooks and hellish pathos glistening with the sweat of nightmares and prolonged sexual frustration.

"I don't know if anything really fits on this album. It's a little disjointed, and we like that aspect of its personality. If it were a person, it would be this really schizophrenic freak," says Stringfellow. "We're into that. We can't just let anything be straight; we always have to mess with it a little bit."

Lately, Stringfellow and Auer have also been messing with their appearance, coloring their long, stringy hair in Day-Glo shades of purple and pink. The new look lent a punkish visual flair to the Posies' performance at this year's South by Southwest Music Conference, where the group came off like the mutant spawn of Cheap Trick and the Hollies. (On Amazing Grace, Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander show up to contribute guitar and vocals to "Hate Song.")

But such dress-up displays aren't usual with the Posies. More often, they prefer to rebel a little less obviously -- sticking closer to the spirit of pop's ultimate subversives, Big Star, whom Auer and Stringfellow worship. Plenty of parallels exist between the bands -- not the least of which is a common emphasis on gorgeous harmonies and a ceaseless struggle between craftsmanship and chaos. But the Posies have already experienced more success than Big Star ever did in its short, seven-year existence.

"We've sold way more records in our time," says Stringfellow. "I have a ballpark figure of how many records they've sold, and it's not much."

Still, that commercial distance from their idols didn't keep Stringfellow and Auer from jumping at the chance to join former Big Star members Alex Chilton and Jody Stevens for a 1993 reunion tour -- or prevent Stringfellow from paying tribute to another cultish musical inspiration on Amazing Grace's "Grant Hart," a song named in honor of the co-founder of Husker Du.

"When Husker Du was around, they had quite a lot of stature at a certain level," says Stringfellow, explaining the intentions behind "Grant Hart" and its music's adherence to the Huskers' loud-and-fast style. "But, because it didn't get beyond that, they were sort of forgotten."

Does Stringfellow worry that the Posies will suffer a similar fate? "We haven't broken up yet," he says. "But if we broke up today, we might disappear."

Stringfellow and Auer see the wisdom in patience, subscribing to the view that if you stick to your guns long enough, things will eventually turn in your favor. They could have packed it in as early as 1990, when the Posies' brilliant major-label debut, Dear 23, sputtered despite a strong prerelease buzz and a glut of rave reviews. One Los Angeles Times critic had the courage to mention the CD -- with its lucid conceptual feel and its borrowed bits from the Lennon and McCartney catalog -- in the same breath with the Beatles' Abbey Road.

Despite disappointing sales, the Posies -- which, at the time, included drummer Mike Musburger and bassist Rick Roberts -- toured their hearts out for several months behind Dear 23. Then, Auer and Stringfellow sat down to work on songs for a follow-up. During that period, Roberts left to front his own band. The Posies found a replacement in Dave Fox and emerged in 1993 with the harshly melodic Frosting on the Beater, a stripped-down response to the more production-filled Dear 23.

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