Launching a U.S. acoustic tour last week, Posies vocalists and guitarists Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow are returning to their stripped-down pop roots.
"Playing the songs acoustically is closer to their origin," Stringfellow said. "It's how the songs sounded as they were written."
The Seattle group came to prominence in the early '90s as underdog pop counterparts to the prevailing grunge trend in their hometown and the United States. The band's independent debut, 1988's Failure, captured the hearts of power-pop fans weaned on Big Star (the '70s cult pop band that Auer and Stringfellow later helped re-form), the Raspberries and early R.E.M. In the '90s, the band signed to a major label, Geffen, and embarked on a sometimes disjointed career in rock. After releasing 1998's Success, the Posies called it quits.
"I think we had questions of identity at certain points, like, 'What are we?' and 'Do we have to do something more than be ourselves?' " Stringfellow said.
"There was definitely a point when we were more in competition with the punk-rock thing," Auer said. "To be honest, it actually alienated some of the people who liked us initially."
With the duo's acoustic tour serving as a bittersweet farewell Stringfellow will concentrate on a new project, Saltine, and his gig as a sideman in R.E.M., while Auer is pursuing a solo project under his own name the Posies seem to have resolved the identity crisis and again embraced the more-tender sensibilities that defined their sound on songs such as "Solar Sister" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Coming Right Along" (RealAudio excerpt), both from 1993's Frosting on the Beater.
"I think time has kind of proven that [we] will be best remembered for the harmonies and the vulnerability of the lyrics," Auer said. "What we did best was write melodic songs, and that's what makes the acoustic tour so great; it's just stripped down to the essence, and you don't have things getting the way of the songs."
Among a slew of new and upcoming posthumous Posies albums, In Case You Didn't Feel Like Plugging In captures an acoustic Posies show recorded in February at Seattle's Showbox and includes selections from each of the band's studio albums. Highlights include "Suddenly Mary" (RealAudio excerpt), from 1990's Dear 23, and "Please Return It" (RealAudio excerpt), from 1996's Amazing Disgrace.
Other recent Posies albums include Dream All Day, a best-of collection of the band's Geffen-era tracks and the live electric CD Alive Before the Iceberg. Most significant of the band's loyal fanbase is the upcoming At Least ... At Last, a four-CD box set released by Boulder, Colo., pop label Not Lame, due Sept. 19.
The collection is "a retrospective of the unheard part of our career," Stringfellow said. With only two previously released tracks, At Least ... features demos, cover songs, live tracks and even a bootleg recording of the duo performing the national anthem before a Seattle Mariners baseball game.
"It's a glimpse into our working methods to some degree," Stringfellow said, "and a showcase for some of our time spent at play." Complete with liner notes, exclusive photos and a lovingly designed package, the box set "is one of those things that I didn't think would turn into something so deluxe and fully realized," he said.
Since the Posies broke up, Stringfellow has been playing in R.E.M., both on the group's last tour and in the studio. In June, Stringfellow finished recording an 11-song Saltine album with Mitch Easter (formerly of Let's Active) that he is shopping to various labels. Auer has released a solo EP on Spain's Houston Party label.
Like Old Times
After spending much of the '90s running the major-label gauntlet, both musicians welcome the return to their independent roots.
"The Posies had a big enough audience and it's really satisfying," Auer said. "That's another reason to do this tour. It's really grassroots, just us going out and selling records from the stage."
Stringfellow said the band hopes to take the acoustic tour to Europe, New Zealand, Australia and Japan later this fall. And as they've done several times since an initial concert in 1996, Auer and Stringfellow will join Big Star's Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton on Sept. 2 to play Big Star songs at Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival.
After surviving the pressures of the music business and their own internal difficulties, the Posies now find themselves in a better place.
"At the end of Amazing Disgrace [the band's last record for Geffen], we were both so out of our minds, it was destructive," Auer said. "But now it's like hanging out with a good friend again. We still share a lot of the same tastes and same sense of humor."