Go all the way

It’s a Wednesday morning somewhere in the American South, on the current leg of the Posies’ taxing North American tour, and as a kind gesture from a usually uncaring universe, it’s the band’s day off.

Ken Stringfellow’s off in search of sustenance, which he eventually finds in the form of a cheese steak and coffee, and Jon Auer’s trying to unwind in the hotel room. Tomorrow night they play in Atlanta, and after that it’s off to Nashville, Tenn.; Athens, Ga.; and Chapel Hill, N.C.

It’s a full, good life.

Nor’west power-pop stalwarts the Posies have had a hell of a time calling it quits. Success, the band’s 1998 album, was to be their swan song. Auer and Stringfellow, who’d shepherded the Posies through a series of mutating lineups since founding the group in 1986, were ready to do other things — solo albums, production, new collaborations. A live album and a box set later, the Posies’ legacy seemed well capped, and though they’d only scored one true breakthrough record, 1993’s Frosting on the Beater, it still hadn’t been a bad run.

Besides, the Posies knew about good music made under volatile circumstances, and how it sometimes self-destructs despite critical acclaim — which they always enjoyed in spades. When Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens agreed to a then one-shot Big Star reunion concert at Missouri University in 1993, it was Auer and Stringfellow they fittingly tapped to join them. (The combination worked; the first Big Star album in three decades, In Space, is out this week.)

So when the Posies finally hung it up, dogged by label woes and increasing personal friction between its two main singers and songwriters, Auer and Stringfellow went their separate ways.

For a while.

“I’m always slightly amazed,” Stringfellow says now, “by the things that have left and re-entered my life. People disappear for a while, and then they come back. This band, and the connection between Jon and I — those two elements are really impossible to separate. If one doesn’t work, the other’s not going to — at least, not well. And that period of us not speaking, and not making music, is getting further and further behind now.”

Auer adds: “The band was our baby. We dragged it into the world. By virtue of the fact that we were always the singers and songwriters, we’d always done the lion’s share of the writing work.”

But on the heels of two duo-acoustic releases under the Posies banner — 2000’s live In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Plugging In and an exquisite EP, Nice Cheekbones and a Ph.D. — Auer and Stringfellow have been joined by longtime collaborator Darius Minwalla on drums and Matt Harris (of neo-psychedelia trio Oranger) on bass for Every Kind of Light, a plugged-in and fully collaborative release behind which they’re currently touring.

And, at last, it feels like a band again.

“I’m not sure whether Jon and I would have felt it necessary to release another album, just the two of us,” Stringfellow says, carefully.

“This album is the product of the four of us, together,” Auer says. “In the past, Ken and I made a concerted effort to show up at the studio with a lot of music pretty well blueprinted, in the form of demos. With this one we wanted to do something different.”

The foursome approached each day in the studio with a blue-collar work ethic, developing and working through ideas, and at the end of two weeks they had the bones of the dozen songs on Every Kind of Light.

“If it failed, we wouldn’t have put it out,” Auer says. “But on the first day we started kicking around an idea that eventually became the song ‘Conversations,’ and in something like four hours we had it tracked.

“I’m not saying it’s the best way to make an album,” Auer says, laughing, “but it worked. We had such a limited time working around everyone’s touring and recording schedules that the whole thing was really born from necessity. It could have been a disaster.”

Every Kind of Light finds the Posies in a largely mid-tempo mode, but the comfortable quality of the complex music — this is one of those albums on which you can actually hear the collaboration — keeps the record from ever sounding morose, a problem that’s dogged some of the band’s previous excursions into slower territory. Never coming off as jaded or cynical, Every Kind of Light instead sounds like a band with an earned sense of cautious optimism — a quality which, as Posies fans will attest, is a long time coming.

“I don’t think of myself as naively optimistic,” Auer says. “I don’t feel weary. I’ve been doing this with Ken under the Posies name since high school.

“After everything that’s happened — a breakup, a falling out with someone who was one of my best friends in life — even after all that, there’s proof that things can work out. I mean, talk about optimism: This band’s a living example of it.”


Performing Tuesday, Oct. 4, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700. With Oranger.

Eric Waggoner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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