Tag Archives: Ken Stringfellow

The Posies @ the 100 Club, 06/04/15

A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to be among the lucky souls who saw Jon Auer play at the Islington, a gig that is probably among the best half-dozen or so I’ve ever been to. It made me reconnect with his music in a big way, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years listening to, not just his music, but power pop-type stuff generally.

As a teenager I was really into the idea of bands that mixed “proper” songwriting (meaning, I guess, Beatles-derived chord changes) and vocal harmonies with loud guitars and prominent drums, and the Posies did that as well as anyone since their illustrious forefathers Big Star (so well that Auer and fellow founding Posie Ken Stringfellow became members of the reconstitued Big Star, though if you’re reading this, you almost certainly know that). But that Jon Auer show got me really excited by the possibilities of that kind of music again, so seeing the Posies when they came through London again was hard to turn down.

The press photos that I’d seen used to promote the tour only showed Auer and Stringfellow, so I was half expecting a duo show. Instead it was Jon and Ken with drummer Frankie Siragusa, an LA-based multi-instrumentalist and producer. No bassist, but lots of parts being triggered by Stringfellow from his keyboards (and possibly pedals – I couldn’t see his feet from where I was).

Auer and Stringfellow seem hugely excited by playing with Siragusa, and sure enough, the dude can drum. He’s a bit of a monster, in fact. Unfortunately the mix privileged his playing over everything else, making it hard to hear the guitars and at times even the vocals (the songs where Siragusa kept time on the hats were OK; the ride cymbal was pain-threshold volume, though), which made it a little tricky to follow all the details of the new songs the guys are playing on the tour.*

Even amid the clang of cymbals, the quality of the new songs – and the evolution they represent for the band – was clear. Auer’s Unlikely Places, built on top of a robotic single-note riff, was an early highlight; single Squirrel vs Snake mixed a ’60s bubblegum melody with clever wordplay, and took on greater force than its studio counterpart; The Plague (for which they were joined by singer Gizelle Smith) welded together several hugely different sections into a seamless whole; and The Sound of Clouds was pensive, near-weightless and utterly lovely. All are in their different ways unlike anything they’ve done before.

The older songs were great, too, even without a bass player. Dream All Day got an early airing, Throwaway and Please Return It (two old favourites of mine, and the former a new favourite for Mel) were paired in the middle of the set, and Burn & Shine was a showcase for Siragusa’s fine drumming. He pretty much aced what must have been a hugely demanding song to be playing nearly 90 minutes into a set that had already thrown him some challenging material.

My favourite on the night, though, was The Glitter Prize, from 2010’s Blood/Candy, another song with Gizelle Smith guesting. The 3-part harmonies were glorious, and sent me scurrying off to iTunes to pick up an album I hadn’t got round to yet. The recorded version is superb, too. Its mid-tempo 4/4 groove puts me somewhat in mind of Fleetwood Mac, as does the mix of male and female harmonies – co-writer Kay Hanley (formerly of Letters to Cleo) also sang on the track. It’s an unusual sound for the Posies, who normally rely purely on the Auer/Stringfellow vocal blend.

I’d seen the Posies from far away at the Reading Festival, and I’d seen Auer close up at the Islington, so yesterday I payed particular attention to what Ken Stringfellow was doing. He’s a quite terrific singer, able to push his voice into screamy rock territory, sing full-throated top-line harmonies à la Graham Nash and dial it down to a delicate, intimate whisper, but his versatility last night on the guitar and keyboards was hugly impressive, too. Which reminds me, I should really dig out his first solo album, Touched – a record I’m rather fond of but haven’t listened to in full for a couple of years.

Quibbles with the sound mix aside, it was a fine show, and it’s great to see Auer and Stringfellow playing with so much enthusiasm after what must have been a horrible year for them**. It’s not an easy task to carry an audience with you for 20-odd songs when most of the crowd have never heard over half of them, but the guys managed it. I’m already enjoying spending time with their new record and looking forward to the next time they’re in London.

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Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. Never stop, guys.

*The tour is in advance of the release of new album Solid States. They are selling pre-release copies at the merch table though.
**This past year their drummer Darius Minwalla and former bass player Joe Skyward have both passed away.

 

 

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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!

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 3

6) Beware of Darkness – George Harrison

There are still people in this world – people without functioning ears, I assume – who labour under the misapprehension that Ringo Starr wasn’t a good drummer. Lennon’s joke in an interview that Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles hasn’t helped his reputation amongst non-musicians (and people who don’t understand irony), but even though Lennon’s humour could be cruel, this wasn’t what he intended when he made the crack, I’m sure – after all, who is the drummer on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band?

The former Beatles were prize catches for any session player in the early 1970s and as much as Lennon obviously respected and trusted Ringo’s musicianship, it was only natural that after 10 years with the same guys, the ex-Beatles would look to cast their nets a little wider when making their own albums, play with other people, see what others could contribute to their songs. Such was their colossal reputations, to get a nod from a Beatle and get to play on a song would establish the musician’s own rep among his peers. Alan White was not a ‘name’ when he played on Instant Karma but, impressed by him, soon Lennon introduced him to George Harrison and so White was added to the pool of drummers who appear on All Things Must Pass, along with Jim Gordon, former Delaney & Bonnie sideman, and a member of the nascent Derek & the Dominoes at the time of the All Things Must Pass sessions.

Added to this short and august list is Ringo Starr. Playing Guess the Drummer is one of the greatest pleasures of Harrison’s solo debut. You often need acute ears to tell the three apart, which speaks to the adaptability of the trio, their ability to inhabit the music, to put themselves at the music’s service.

At a brisker tempo (say, on Wah-Wah), Ringo’s playing starts to feel more identifiably Ringo-esque, but on Beware of Darkness, you could be listening to Jim Keltner, to Russ Kunkel, or to anyone else who built their career in the seventies on being able to play slow four-four grooves that swing rather than plod. There is so much more to Ringo Starr than splashy open hi-hats and backwards fills. Listen to Beware of Darkness. Listen to Ringo’s groove, the spaces he leaves for the music to breathe, listen to fills he plays, the emotional responses he’s having to the song when he plays them. You’re listening to the most important drummer in popular music.

Ringo

7) Careless Whisper – George Michael

Those who know me best know I’m not averse to a little bit of cheese in a good ballad. For many people, Careless Whisper goes too far. Maybe it’s the lyrics, maybe the saxophone riff, maybe George’s Princess Diana hair in the video, but it’s too much for them.

For me, though, it’s fine. More than fine. It’s one of the best records of its type. A key reason why is the drum track, played by Trevor Morrell, who was one of George Michael’s go-to guys in the Wham! days. Morrell is a very steady timekeeper with a good feel and who (according to the Posies Ken Stringfellow, who a few years ago chanced upon him while producing a record in Spain and ended up bringing him into the session) gives the drums a surprisingly hard battering.

There’s a lot to learn about the success of Careless Whisper as a recording by listening to the Jerry Wexler-produced version, which was shelved by an unhappy Michael but eventually released as a B-side. Jerry Wexler producing a soulful ballad by a great singer in Muscle Shoals – this had been a recipe for success for 30 years before Careless Whisper, yet when you listen to the two versions, it’s clear why Michael nixed the first one and chose to start again, producing it himself.

The rhythm track is a key difference. It just doesn’t feel very good. In the key early bars, the bassist is ahead of the kick drum, and while they feel their way into it by the first chorus, I’m surprised the take was judged to pass muster without editing in a new first verse. But even if they had been super-tight, the drum track would still have been inferior to the Michael-produced version. Wexler’s version has the kick drum and bassist playing this:

beats    1     &     2     &     3     &     4     &

kick       x                     x      x

bass     x                      x     x

Whereas the Careless Whisper we know and love is this:

beats    1     &     2     &     3     &     4     &

kick       x                         x  x

bass     x                      x     x

Small difference in terms of what is played, huge difference in terms of how it feels.

Another simple decision, to have 16th notes on the hi-hat rather than 8th, thus giving the song a greater sense of internal propulsion, was the other factor that made the drum track, and hence made the record. I’m not sure whether they were doubled on a drum machine for the second version, as a hi-hat pulse is present under the opening fill (which would require more hands I imagine Morrell has), but the difference the double-time hats make is plain. Morrell pushes Careless Whisper along while never forcing things, never stepping on Michael’s turf (or the saxophonist’s). Some of his fills, too, are inspired – I really like the big floor tom-and-snare build-up Morrell plays at around 4.35 as he goes out of the tricksy groove with displaced snare strokes back to the main groove. My guess is that he was having a bit of fun, assuming the track (or at least the radio mix) would have faded out already but his off-the-cuff fills felt so good that Michael decided to keep the whole thing for the unedited version. Good decision, George.

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.