Tag Archives: Dear 23

The Posies @ The Garage, 19/10/18

The Garage is my kind of venue for a rock show. A well-proportioned room, no seating and a stage only a step or two up from the audience. It’s small, sweaty and intimate – not ideal for anything other than loud rock gigs, but great for those.

Fortunately, that’s what the Posies had in mind. Always a tougher proposition live than on record, they came out in purposeful mood, smashing into Dream All Day with a full arsenal of scissor kicks and windmills. The mix was loud but pretty well balanced. If the vocals were occasionally a little on the quiet side, it was no big. It was a rock show, after all, and thanks to a good relationship between guitars and drums, the music had all the physical impact you’d hope for.

Next up was Dear 23‘s Any Other Way. The recording of that song is gorgeous, with rich reverb and a lovely depth to the guitar sound. On Friday, the band attacked it hard, giving it a feral edge. Ken Stringfellow even broke into Grohl-style screams. Not subtle, but very effective. Please Return It, one of my very favourite Posies songs, was excellent too, but I was a little sad they didn’t pair it with Throwaway as they did when I saw them two years ago at the 100 Club. The sequencing of those two on Amazing Disgrace was perfect, and Throwaway was a surprise non-inclusion in the set. Perhaps Jon Auer’s just a little tired of singing it.

A brace of songs from Frosting on the Beater – Definite Door and Love Letter Boxes – went down very well with the crowd, who were mostly long-time fans, and showed the band’s ability to be heavy and fluid at the same time. Both songs feature surprise rhythmic changes in their choruses, and the rhythm section handled both with aplomb.

An excellent version of Auer’s World slowed the tempo and sonic assault, and was followed up by possibly the highlight of the night. Jon and Ken explained how they came to work on Dear 23 with producer John Leckie – veteran producer of XTC and Magazine albums and then at a career highpoint with the success of the Stone Roses’ debut – and then dedicated an unamplified version of You Avoid Parties to Leckie, who was standing in the audience a few feet away from us. It raised the hair on my arms.

The contrast between that naked performance of what is a pretty stark song and Auer’s So Caroline (a highlight from the brilliant Blood/Candy) only made the latter sound more celebratory, although one of the guys (I can’t remember whether it was Jon or Ken) undercut it by joking they’d detected a collective wince every time they sang “close enough to remain“.

Next was a surprise. Mike Musburger, who was authoritative and powerful behind the kit all night, was replaced by Posies fan Lawrence Salisbury for a version of Going, Going, Gone from the Reality Bites soundtrack. Salisbury had backed the band’s reissue campaign on PledgeMusic and his reward was to be a Posie for a song. He did a pretty great job of handling all the changes in dynamic and the big fills at the end of the choruses and was obviously having a blast doing it. The audience was noisily appreciative of his efforts.

Support act Anna Wolf then joined the band on stage to guest on two Blood/Candy highlights: Licenses to Hide and The Glitter Prize. I’m a big fan of both songs and was pleased to hear them, but while, Wolf’s presence did add an extra something to the vocals, her rather theatrical singing voice didn’t blend all that well with Jon’s and Ken’s, and was sometimes a little distracting.

Everybody is a Fucking Liar (from Amazing Disgrace) and two more from Frosting on the Beater, Flavor of the Month and the deathless Solar Sister, brought the great set to a strong end; the latter two were particularly strong, and, for those paying attention, ensured that the encore would end only one way.

The band came back quickly and ground out a fuss-free version of Song #1, a twisty-turny track from Amazing Disgrace that itself would have made a good set closer. Another highlight followed: the band’s wonderful cover of Chris Bell’s shattered, shattering I Am the Cosmos, possibly the best song Bell ever wrote (and that’s saying something). Few singers could inhabit that song and do the intensity of its emotions justice, and Auer is one of them. He and Stringfellow are still ludicrously underrated as singers.

They then played a frantic, lightning-speed version of Grant Hart from Amazing Disgrace, the band’s tribute to the late Hüsker Dü drummer and singer. The tempo, while impressive and fitting for a song about a legend of hardcore, was possibly too brisk for its own good; the band made such a racket that the vocals, for the only time that night, became indistinct. Anyone not familiar with the song would have struggled to identify it amid the white noise.

Not to worry, though. Burn & Shine finished things very strongly. Auer’s pysch-grunge epic is a perfect set closer, and manages to encapsulate so much of what was great about the Posies in the 1990s: the muscularity of the drumming, the intensity of the guitars, the indelible melodies, the peerless harmony singing and, when the occasion warranted, the scabrous lead guitar playing of Auer. By the end of the song, his guitar had no strings left on it and Musburger’s cymbals had taken a hell of a beating. My eardrums, too.

Oh, I haven’t mentioned Dave Fox’s suit. He had quite the suit. I wish I had a picture.

 

 

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Jon Auer live at The Islington/You Used to Drive Me Around

The last time I saw Jon Auer play was with the Posies at the Reading Festival in 2001. They were on in the bigger of the two tents, in front of several thousand people. On Friday night I was among around 100 lucky souls who saw him play in the back room of a pub in Angel, a room where I played drums with Sumner about 8 months ago, in front of not many fewer than were there the other night.

Jon Auer London 4 - photo Katherine Mengardon
Jon Auer, The Islington, 15/08/14. Photo courtesy of Katherine Mengardon/Jon Auer

Auer and his fellow Posie Ken Stringfellow are both very talented singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists. That had always been obvious. But while I knew that Auer was a really technically proficient guitarist, I didn’t realise quite how good he was until I watched him play electric guitar for 90 minutes from about 6 feet away, with no band behind him to help him fill space. He played magnificently. I’d been expecting a sit-down, acoustic, sensitive singer-songwriter set. He played acoustic a little, including a wonderful entirely unamplified version of Throwaway, but basically he gave us a rock show — without a band — that still managed to rock. There wasn’t a dull moment all evening.

I figured before the gig that I’d know a decent amount of the songs he’d play, since I’ve got the Posies’ first four albums (Failure, Dear 23, Frosting on the Beater and Amazing Disgrace) and one of the reunion discs (Every Kind of Light), and since it seemed that Auer hadn’t been quite as busy as Ken Stringfellow in the years between Posies activity (one solo album to KS’s three). In the event I knew maybe half the songs he played and was perplexed, albeit delighted, to realise that the songs I didn’t know (those off his solo record, the one he wrote for Big Star, a bunch of others — maybe from Posies EPs or that aren’t released yet) were even better than the ones I did.

Jon Auer London 2 - Photo Sue Edmond 2
Photo courtesy of Sue Edmond/Jon Auer

Having met him briefly after the set to tell him it was amazing and to verify that it was indeed him that popped up to school my ass in the comments section here, I dashed home and immediately scoured iTunes for what I’d missed out on. Particularly, I was looking for songs called Josephine and You Used to Drive Me Around. Both of these are on a solo album I was only dimly aware he’d released, Songs from the Year of Our Demise.

You Used to Drive Me Around has been killing me ever since.

It’s not a world away from what Auer used to do with the Posies: he still bases his guitar riffs on surprisingly out-there tunings, making them dark and grindy as much as they are sparkly and melodic; the drums are still prominent (mercifully left intact by the mastering job); he’s still one of the best harmony singers around. But there’s a weariness to his writing, to the performances, that I didn’t recognise from his earlier work.

Sometimes his lyrics are hard to parse, and while I don’t know and wouldn’t wish to speculate on who the subject of You Used to Drive Me Around is, the song seems very much to be going over emotional territory that’s familiar to me personally, which is doubtless one of the reasons it’s hit me so hard. Frankly, the third time I heard it on Friday night (which is to say, the second time I listened to the recorded version, when the line ‘You come clean and I’ll come closer’ suddenly hit me), it moved me to tears.

And I got to thinking, this record has existed for eight years, and I didn’t know about it. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know who Jon Auer was either. Sometimes it’s made clear to you, with all the people in the world making music — all the old favourites, the new favourites, the soon-to-be favourites, the people slogging away in practice rooms, and pub back rooms, the people who died 20 years ago — how much might be getting by you every day, and it’s pretty overwhelming. How much great art do we miss out on when we’re looking the other way?

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The poster from the show – photo of Auer back in his Antonio Banderas-lookin’ days


Some recent work of mine!

I May Hate You Sometimes – The Posies

Before prosumer digital recording gear became available, a home recordist working in rock or pop was a lo-fi artist whether they wanted to be or not. Whether you were working with a Portastudio or some kind of reel-to-reel machine was only part of the story: compared to the folks doing it all themselves at home, an artist hiring a professional studio had access to better tape machines, better microphones, better-sounding rooms, better consoles, the recording know-how of trained audio engineers and the technical know-how of maintenance engineers. A home-recording rock musician looking to get close to what could be accomplished in a pro studio would need to be committed, prepared to lay out some pretty serious money and possess the patience to learn a lot of technical skills that are quite far removed from the ones needed to write and perform music. And even then, they could only get so close. No home recordist ever made Rumours or What’s Going On.

Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the guitarists and co-lead vocalists of the Posies possessed the talent and tenacity needed to give it a go, and they had an advantage over their four-tracking peers in that Auer’s father had installed an eight-track home studio in his house (with a reel-to-reel eight-track machine, not a cassette-based one), which Auer and Stringfellow duly made use of to record their debut album as the Posies, Failure.

Between them, the two played all the instruments and handled all the engineering. My sense is that, since Auer was the principal engineer, the drum tracks and many of the bass performances are Stringfellow’s, although Auer is listed as contributing keyboards and bass as well as his usual guitar and vocals. Stringfellow’s work as an R.E.M. touring band member, during which time he handled piano, organ, bass, banjo and guitar certainly proves he’s an adept multi-instrumentalist, so it’s not a stretch to imagine he’d be a reasonable drummer too (and since I can’t imagine these guys ever got into analogue-domain editing of drums, which involves cutting the master tapes up and splicing them back together, he’d have needed to be). [See comments below for true credits, from a reliable source]

So Failure is an impressive achievement for a couple of guys barely out of their teens. But for all their skills and hard work, Failure doesn’t sound like a professionally recorded album, doesn’t have the richness, detail and texture that they created for their second album, Dear 23, which was recorded and mixed by John Leckie (who’s perhaps most famous for the Stone Roses’ debut, Radiohead’s The Bends and the first two Muse albums, but whose career stretches back to the early seventies, when he worked as a tape op on Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass).

The sonic differences between the two records – Failure and Dear 23 – are stark. While I’d love to hear Dear 23 remixed a touch drier, it remains a fantastic-sounding record, shimmering and clear as a bell. In comparison, Failure is bass-light and skeletal. But Auer and Stringfellow undeniably caught a vibe on that record, and the immediacy of its best tracks makes Dear 23 sound a little considered, a little fussy. No track on Failure is more immediate than I May Hate You Sometimes, the song from that record with the most mainstream visibility (having been included on Children of Nuggets and used over the credits of a Daria TV movie).

While much more clean and professional-sounding than much of what is traditionally considered lo-fi, like all the best lo-fi material the strongest songs on Failure bust through the limitations imposed on them by the manner of their recording, and seem to be animated from within by the excitement and sense of fulfillment attained by their creators. It was not easy to do what Auer and Stringfellow did in 1988, and for that and much more they deserve far greater credit and recognition than they’ve ever received.

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The Posies: Ken Stringfellow (hoodie) and Jon Auer (long hair, glasses), 1996.