Issue #144: Frosting On The Beater by The Posies

January 7, 2018

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Frosting On The Beater by The Posies
Released In April 27, 1993
Released By DGC Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Drew Necci

I feel like I always end up writing about my younger days when I go to write one of these, and at the risk of becoming a total cliché, I’m about to do it again. Frosting On The Beater by The Posies was released in spring 1993, a couple of months before I graduated high school. I’d been aware of the Posies before that, but what really caught my attention was when, in the wake of the album’s release, singer-guitarists Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow appeared on MTV’s 120 Minutes to play an acoustic version of “Solar Sister.

I’d already heard the first single and opening track, “Dream All Day,” by then. 120 Minutes was playing the video, and it was a solid song — but it didn’t hit me over the head or anything. Saying that “Solar Sister” did, even in the stripped-down acoustic version I heard first, is something of an understatement. I was blown away by this incredibly well-crafted pop gem, which Stringfellow introduced as being “an anthem of admiration for someone who doesn’t appreciate themselves.” That idea resonated deeply with me; I could see my own feelings about many of my friends and crushes in it. And something of my feelings about myself, though I never would have admitted it at the time.

But it was the song itself that gave the feeling such power. The acoustic version gets the song’s pop beauty and poetic yet cerebral lyrics across, but the album version is the real killer. Don Fleming followed up the excellent production job he’d done on another major favorite of teenaged me, Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, by producing this Posies album, and he gave their sound some teeth, making the drums pop and the guitars crunch even as Auer and Stringfellow crooned beautifully overtop. That delightful mixture of flavors is absolutely perfect on “Solar Sister,” and it gives the whole thing a physical as well as emotional impact. I’d liked the acoustic version of the song enough to take a chance on the whole album; once I heard it in full flower, I was won over in a big way.

But we wouldn’t be talking about it on OYR if it was just one song that did it for me on this record. Frosting On The Beater‘s sweetest power-pop moments foreshadow the fact that, literally the same week the album was released, Auer and Stringfellow would join the reunited Big Star for a concert that was soon turned into the power-pop pioneers’ first release in fifteen years. That Big Star magic, that mix of American heartland rock n’ roll and pure Beatlesque pop sweetness that makes “September Gurls” and “In The Street” deathless classics, is all over Frosting On The Beater.

But like Big Star, there’s a lot of room to move within the sound of the Posies; if you want an entire album of “Solar Sister”s, you won’t really get it. That’s a Ken Stringfellow song, and Jon Auer’s tunes tend towards a slightly heavier take on power-pop that reaches its apex on “Definite Door,” full of viscerally overdriven guitars and snapping snares. This song is downright heavy at points, and it leads into the first of two dark side-closing epics. “Burn & Shine” at the end of side one is a rumbling, bass-heavy slice of foreboding, which rocks harder than anything else here and ultimately ends in mid-guitar solo, snapping off like someone hit stop on the tape.

By contrast, Ken Stringfellow’s gorgeous “Earlier Than Expected” starts off side two with what is probably the sweetest chorus melody to be found on this album, though its undercurrent of melancholy gives it subtle depths. “When Mute Tongues Can Speak” is another excellent Stringfellow tune on side two, though this one replaces “Solar Sister”‘s generosity of spirit with a chronicle of social anxiety and alienation that felt like a piece of my soul when I was an 18-year old college freshman. I went so far as to write “Experience is necessary to be normal,” a line from that song, on the front cover of a zine I made that spring.

Side two ends on a heavier note as well; penultimate track “How She Lied By Living” is a dark burner focused on loud, dissonant guitar riffs, underscored by gloomy piano notes and of course, Auer and Stringfellow’s always-amazing vocal harmonies. Then, for the album’s epic closer, “Coming Right Along,” the rhythm section disappears completely — but not for a sweet acoustic finale. If anything, it’s the opposite, a song played on two overdriven electric guitars whose eerie low notes rattle speakers and make the whole thing feel like a funeral march. The gloomy mood created is fitting for the lyrics, a plea for strength in the face of loneliness and depression that paints pictures of despair with understanding clearly born from firsthand experience.

There are a lot of other great songs on this album; really, any that I haven’t discussed could be just as deserving of focus as the ones I’ve actually focused on. When you buy an album because of one song, there’s always the potential for the rest of it to be disappointing. And that disappointment seems even more likely when you realize that many of the songs on the album don’t sound very much like the song you bought it for. That’s what makes Frosting On The Beater such an achievement. It does all of these things, and rather than bumming me out, it makes me love it even more.

A quarter-century later, I’d still consider “Solar Sister” one of the best songs I’ve ever heard; it definitely attained “go-to song for crush mixtape” status for at least a decade. But I don’t just love that song — I celebrate this entire album. Whenever I pull it out, I have to play the whole thing, and usually I do so several times. The entire album is perfect. I don’t know what more I can say.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

Power pop icons. Alt-rock trailblazers.

In a powerful and warmly harmonized refrain, “Lights Out” asks “Are we there yet?” Are we ever truly anywhere, man? In all seriousness, it’s a question worth asking right now. There’s an undeniable — and seemingly progressing — sense of displacement to life in this here Era of Streaming™ aka Age of Access™ aka Days Of Distraction™. When you have everything at your fingertips, it can feel like, regardless of what you’re doing/watching/listening to, you should really be doing/watching/listening to something else. I get a retrospective version of that feeling listening to The Posies. Given the band’s finely tuned balance of catchiness and substance, and a standout tune that positions the band opposite the trendy side of grunge (“Flavor Of The Month“), Frosting On The Beater sounds to me like the thing I should have been spinning in my Discman back in the day when I was busy spinning something else. Probably the Dumb And Dumber soundtrack for the 87th time. Or that other stuff coming out of the Pacific Northwest at the time, though that’s stood the test of time a little better. Speaking of Nirvana and Dave Grohl, “Definite Door” gave me some serious flashbacks to the early Foo Fighters albums, though the color and shape of its verse melody have an even more direct descendent in “Learn To Fly,” which didn’t touch down until the end of the decade. I guess I’d answer the question in “Lights Out” this way: I’ve never been there, and I probably never will. I’ll always be chasing after the album from last year or last century that I wish I’d known about sooner. It’s one reason I love being part of Off Your Radar, which is built upon a wise acknowledgment of the fact that nobody catches everything the first time around.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

The Subaru wagon is pretty much the Official Car of the NW. When my dad flew up from California to visit me the summer I turned 15 (when you can legally get your license in Montana), he could not stop commenting on it on the drive from the airport in Spokane, WA to my tiny town that was just across the Idaho border. “And there’s another one! Jesus Christ, does Subaru just give their cars away up here?!” Then we pulled down my driveway and I could not stop laughing at his muttered “what the fuck” as he saw what would be my first car sitting in our carport. It was a ‘78, and the registration claimed it was Gold, but years of salt and mud had turned it into No Real Colour with speckles of rust. There were holes in the floorboards (which earned it its Flintstone Mobile moniker), and earlier that Spring, I’d accidentally blown out its speakers while trying to turn the radio up as my mom hit a pothole. But it was mine. And even though I had at least seven other friends or classmates with almost exactly the same car, and frequently had to pull over on dark highways to replace the headlight fuse that had just blown out, and had to check the oil every time I left the house, I loved that piece of shit. I got around its lack of sound system by having a boombox strapped into the passenger seat (that door didn’t work, anyway) and a huge supply of “Stuff” tapes made by a friend who shared my exact taste in music. Each volume of “Stuff” was a sampler of our new music that we shared with each other. Our four or five favourite songs from each of our four or five most recent acquisitions. The Posies’ Frosting On The Beater was on one of those tapes (along with songs from Soul Rotation, Trompe le Monde, Copper Blue and Leather Boys With Electric Toys; in return he received Clutch, Redd Kross, Dinosaur Jr, and Babes In Toyland) and hearing “Flavor Of The Month” this week put me right back in the driver’s seat of that shitty old wagon. It was the good sort of nostalgia I imagine most people have for their youth, and I didn’t even mind that “How She Lied By Living” wasn’t immediately followed by Pixies’ “Planet Of Sound.”

SJ Lebowski
50 Foot Pop Queenie

When you think about what The Posies accomplished in the ’90s, you really have to appreciate the odds they overcame. Listening to Frosting On The Beater, with all it’s syrupy pop-rock melodies but fairly pedestrian rock chops, you have to appreciate that 1993 was a year full of bands essentially playing pop music on guitars. Production on downtuned, winding guitar lines was being amped up to ridiculous levels. What separated the great bands in those days from the mediocre and one-hit-wonders was either marketing budget or the miracle-like, unpredictable appeal of a single hit. If you could get your track played on college radio, it might eventually make its way to mainstream radio. It seems almost comical now to look back on a world in which music could not immediately be shared, endorsed, or go viral. Nevertheless, The Posies have had incredible staying power largely based on the strength of Frosting On The Beater. Many have observed that the ’90s was dominated by grunge — particularly in Seattle, Washington in the US. The truth is that there was another scene which was dominant in England and Canada at the time and what the Posies were doing had far more in common with those scenes than their own — Manchester bands like The Stone Roses, Northside, and Ride. In Canada, bands like Limblifter and Treble Charger were treading similar territory and having international success with far more “catchy” tracks. The most interesting thing about Frosting On The Beater for me is that I wouldn’t describe any of the tracks as particularly catchy. Far from being a negative thing, I’d credit that fact with its staying power. If you really want to be strict about it, it’s worth noting that this collection of 12 jangly guitar-pop songs — said to be one of their most rock-oriented at the time — had a lot in common with Radioheads’s first album, Pablo Honey which came out the same year. Here are complicated, melodic pop songs which don’t lapse into repetitive tropes, trendy loops and progressions, or simplistic guitar hooks. Nothing is dancefloor friendly, there are no break beats or wall-of-noise, feedback or drenched guitar rock-outs. This is more like an early version of college rock. Each song is considered, deeply written, constructed to say something important. It’s an album that has to grow on you and the more you listen to it the more it does. Such albums reward repeat listening by allowing you to unwind the lyrics. More importantly, such albums can be introduced to new people in 2019 and still find a timeless relevance.

Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage

Click here to watch the prismatically foggy video for “Dream All Day.”

Beautifully layering the band’s melodic hook with a murky air of mystery.

“Yer hair won’t go like that, you know,” he said, drawled out against my wishes. I stood, the day before Christmas, a refugee down South too busy to get a haircut before I’d left Virginia. Although he didn’t believe it, I’d grown up here. My mannerisms, accent, haircut, everything about me screamed not from here as I waited in line for that cut, belying the 23 years I’d spent growing up here. In the wake of his disbelief, I had to redefine my own understanding of being “from there” as I sat, snip after snip, a patron familiar who was not recognized as such. Listening to The Posies this week, I felt a familiar wisp of there and not here as I’d heard this album so many years before without really latching on, but also as I relistened and heard so many strains of so many bands that I love from the 1990s inside those tracks. Like walking through those hallways of stores I haven’t seen in years, listening to this album reacquainted me with so many other bands that flourished in this time. One can listen and hear echoes of Nirvana, Far, and Cave-In that make the later bands of the ’90s make more sense, good as they were to begin with. Heavy melodies overtake the album, dragging down the poppy sensibility of the more accessible early tracks, but those are nonetheless appealing. In the same way that we all have to reimagine places and spaces we have visited years before, The Posies here, in 2019, ask us to remember those drum lines and guitar melodies to create a loved and rocking space.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

There are few things more satisfying in writing or storytelling of any kind, than a full circle moment. Those instances where an established character or plot detail, connects definitively and decisively with another which occurs at an unknown point in the future. Off Your Radar might not be a weekly serial drama or an exposition-heavy novel but all the same, when there are nearly 150 non-repeated albums given words of description, it still feels pretty cool to find a link between an issue long past and the one currently on hand. Way back in September of 2016, before I was part of the newsletter, Doug had decided to highlight Here’s To Almost (EggHunt Records, 2016), the debut LP of Virginia Beach, VA mandolin indie rock band, Feral Conservatives. If I had been on board at that time, the record would have earned plenty of my praises. But actually, that little throwback isn’t even the true connective reveal. Close to two years later, in November of 2017, Feral Conservatives followed up their debut with anything but a sophomore slump, titled, Better Lives (EggHunt Records, 2017). Everything given praise and worth excitement in the debut LP was only bettered with the second release. But, before I get wrapped up in listing everything great about that record, which is a story for another day, after acknowledging that Better Lives was a show of positive growth for many reasons, it’s worth noting that one of those reasons for such a strong second outing was due to collaborative support for and production by none other than — pause for dramatic effect — Jon Auer, the leading man of The Posies! While I don’t know how big of a gasp may or may not have occurred at that reveal, realizing this line connecting these two bands now existed in the context of OYR, it certainly shaped the way the Posies’ own songs came across to me. Despite being a far longer running band than Feral Conservatives, I hadn’t actually heard much of the Posies discography to now, or even when I first heard Here’s To Almost. I was somewhat familiar but not in a deeply intimate way. After Better Lives came out, it became a naturally curious point of interest to hear what the Posies’ music sounded like and to see if those core qualities carried over from Auer’s creative contributions in production to Feral Conservatives’ second album. It was fun to hear the Auer’s love of power pop and alternative rock from its point of foundation over a point of subsequent deviation like producing a different group. The mutual sonic line shared between the two bands is certainly there but with the Posies’ originating sound, you get a more straightforward guitar driven power pop-rock engine. The lead guitar melodies are played with a thick, more classic rock guitar tone (“Definite Door“) and the vocals are melodic, but you get transported to the very different time of the early 1990s, where pop oriented vocals didn’t fall into an overly shiny, razor-thin prison. Everything — from the thick guitars, to the vocals, to the bass, is allowed to expand and retain a sense of its natural sonic state. Drums are mixed with some spatial leeway (“Burn & Shine“), lending the Posies a touch of garage rock stylization without leaving the music to fall into messily mixed territory. It’s these qualities that, though they unveil some of Frosting On The Beater‘s older age, remind us of the very crucial difference between pop, pop rock, and legitimate power pop. The latter of these three, in its focused, un-filtered form, isn’t the most common genre pursued in today’s crop of artists -– Weezer probably rings as one of the most universally still active and commonly known of power pop among the teenage and younger millennial generation, but even their current style of work doesn’t always fit that mold. But despite power pop being a mildly shrunken musical breed, it’s no less unique in its identity when you do finally find or re-visit something that hits it. Slightly jagged tonal edges with prominently retained, singable melodies, and pop structured rhythmic hooks might be three characteristics that exist outside of The Posies’ style of music. Nonetheless, the ratio of each in relation to one another is what makes recalling this kind of early ’90s music so enjoyable. Not to mention, an album like Frosting On The Beater followed other tendencies of that decade, like the making of a LP solidly hovering in the 45-60 minute range, where that meant a complete listening experience, not just burning through everything on three or four singles and making cheap filler songs to hit a minimal time quota. This album is classic, confident power pop — one of the most fun things that came out of the early 1990s.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

Ah, 1993. I’m really surprised that I never heard this record before this week because I was still very much into genres other than hip hop in ’93; Wu-Tang Clan would not drop their life-changing debut until November. Frosting On The Beater would have fit nicely in my regular diet of Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, and Stone Temple Pilots. I will say, however, that this particular record falls more on the emotional side of the spectrum than I was used to. I was way more into the aggressive side of things, but hey, every Rage Against The Machine needs a Smashing Pumpkins to counteract it. The standout here for me in the album’s finale “Coming Right Along.” All of a sudden, there’s a very drastic change in energy, tempo, and vibe. It’s as if a mass of storm clouds rushes in for a sudden lightning storm. A sudden shadow cast over the rest of the album; and it’s great. And it’s not just my perception of the record — it’s all in the lyrics too: “Watch the twilight starve the sun. Shuffle on against the darkness.” Whoa. Makes me shiver in my oversize flannel shirt.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

I’m fascinated by genre; I have been since I first got into music. It’s simultaneously something that (precisely) defines and boxes in. In this way, it’s both necessary and unnecessary. It’s helpful for sorting but not necessarily for enjoyment. I’ve thought a lot about genre while exploring Frosting On The Beater, trying to figure out what it is in that context. It’s a bit too gray to be power pop. It’s a bit too fluffy and pretty to be grunge. It’s probably not ‘out there’ enough to be alternative. It’s certainly rock music, but that’s a bit too broad to be useful. It’s definitely not metal, nor is it post-punk. It sure ain’t new wave. So, what is it? After giving this more thought than what was appropriate, I settled on a term I came across a few years ago: bubble-grunge. That may scan as pejorative, but I don’t think so. The album’s got hooks for days and it’s got lovely harmonies, so pop has to figure into it to some degree in the album’s description, right? But then you’ve got some surprisingly heavy riffing — especially the opening of “How She Lied By Living” which reminds me a little of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” — and some Pixies-esque solos, so I guess it lands near alternative and grunge. And zooming in, the songwriting is closer to the latter than the former. But then again, the bright and dry production is closer to the former. So now we’re kinda back to where we started. To that end, I suppose simply labeling Frosting as “’90s rock” is good enough for most people. It’s good enough for me.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

With their sound and reunion connection, the band gloriously expanded on the sound Big Star championed decades earlier.

I am one of the most open-minded of listeners, someone who will almost always try something once for the simple reason that I never want to lose the opportunity to find more musical joy. But sometimes it can be almost comical how much of an effort — and time — it can take for me to get a chance to hear something. For example, The Posies. I certainly heard of them during their heyday and even heard them — specifically frontmen Jon Stringfellow and Ken Auer — when they played alongside Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens in a Big Star revival live album called Columbia: Live At Missouri University 4/25/93. I am fairly fanatical when it comes to Big Star so that album, which came out a few months after Frosting On The Beater, was a nearly constant listen at the time. I certainly thought Auer and Stringfellow did a great job backing Chilton and Stephens and even acquitting themselves nicely when they came to the fore to sing lead on a few songs, including Chris Bell’s titanic “I Am The Cosmos.” But I never looked back to see what their own stuff was like, probably distracted by a little record called In Utero, which also came out in 1993. Other distractions came from Paul Westerberg’s 14 Songs and Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad, both underrated to this day, yet looming large for me back then. The next time I checked in with Auer and Stringfellow was yet again Big Star related, when a supposed new album from the group called In Space came out in 2005. This was their chance to impress me and I wasn’t the only one who thought it was nearly a complete failure. And that was the last time I even thought about The Posies until Drew suggested it for this very issue. So, now I’ve listened and find a completely fine album. Considering their rep as power pop mavens, FOTB is surprisingly most successful when they get a little noisy and sloppy, like on “Definite Door,” although sometimes they push too hard and find themselves in the Cobain Zone, a dark and twisted place conjured and conquered by one man only. But that was the geist of the zeit in 1993 and I can’t fault them too much for succumbing to its gravitational pull. So, perhaps an album mostly of its time but also an excellent representation of what made that time so memorable.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

First off, let me say a very Happy New Year! May 2019 be filled with love, laughter, and of course music! And what a great album to kick off the year with, filled with powerful guitar riffs, great lyrics, and that classic ’90s sound. I’m a big Foo Fighters fan, and these guys have a similar sound (a la “Big Me“), which pulled me in right away. Maybe it’s that grungy guitar sound, but whatever it is, this album has a great range of sound rather than sounding the same the whole way through. Especially the song “Lights Out” — I just love the way it starts out slow and more acoustic, and then turns into a heavier instrumental section, and then back to the chilled out lyrics. I enjoy when a band showcases what they can do and what they have to offer. My favourite song would have to be the opening track “Dream All Day” though. It’s a great album opener, starting the record off rocking and it just pulls you in. More than that, the title itself just spoke to me. I’m definitely a day dreamer, and in the spirit of the New Year and the endless possibilities it holds, I could dream all day about that.

Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast

Being able to effectively gnarl as well as swoon, I’ve always been a fan of The Posies, even if I’ve never made it through their whole discography, something I’m leaning strongly towards rectifying this year. As I’ve mentioned countless times here before, I’m a sucker for strong melodies and as such, Frosting On The Beater holds a dear place in my heart, with its mesmerizing melodies and dynamic spirit. “Flavor Of The Month” also holds a dear place in my heart, standing tall amongst their strong discography (or again, what I’ve heard) with its sugary opening lyrics — “Can you hear it? / Like an invitation / Can you feel it? / It’s a revelation” — and it’s endlessly charming and rocking sound. But as I re-visited and re-listened to this record for this issue, I found myself drawn more to the darker sound, something I often forget The Posies were perhaps even more well-versed in… which is crazy because Ken Stringfellow’s reputation for off-kilter songs has always preceded his music, at least to me. That darker sound gives this record plenty of bite, making the songs soundtrack a mid-bake licking treat as well as the messy aftermath when the spinning beaters somehow slip wildly out of the bowl, covering the area with its viscous batter. The first substantial taste of this bite comes almost half-way through the record, as chugging dissonance opens “Definite Door” and instantly makes the song stand out of the tracklisting. It was a perfect fit for what was swirling around the radios in 1993, but within the context of the record, showcased that the band was much more than just musicians with a good ear to the ground. The last two songs cement this thought, with a two punch conclusion that stands in stark contrast to the glistening sounds that opened the record. The droning melancholy of “How She Lied By Living” casts a welcoming shadow over my ears, and the concept of its title is endlessly captivating to me, with my mind always wrestling with a sense of belonging and falsehoods. Then there’s “Coming Right Along” which has a remarkably familiar guitar tone (Big Star if I had to name it, but that feels too obvious), but the band distorts it with errant notes and atypical chords to deliver a really scathing end to a record that might be dismissed as catchy rock music for those who only listened to the first few tracks. My wife and I were lucky enough to see the band a few years ago in Richmond, at a bike shop called Scoot of all place for a secret/pop-up show. They only played a few tracks from this record then, as well as a bunch of new stuff — some of which they were joined by Rashie Rosenfarb of Feral Conservatives for backing vocals to piggy-back on Kira’s submission. Despite their whirlwind 17-song set, I was a little bummed to not hear “Flavor Of The Month,” but with this re-listen, I’m now bummed that I didn’t hear either “How She Lied By Living” or “Coming Right Along.” But at least they did close the night with the heavyweight track “Solar Sister,” which may be sweet as frosting on this record, but packs all the bite of this record’s darker side in a live setting. Much like those beloved lyrics from “Flavor Of The Month,” I did in fact hear it like an invitation, and it definitely felt like an revelation.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
We’ll Be Gone By Then by Crozet
Chosen By Chelsea Kostrey

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, SJ Lebowski, David Munro, Drew Necci, Jeremy Shatan, & Darryl Wright

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