The 50th birthday party playlist was fully loaded, almost, with great songs from 1966, 1976, 1986…2006, and 2016.
“Was there any good music in 1996?” someone asked. Shrugs all around. Grunge had burned out and faded away, and OK Computer was still a year off. You know who released an album in 1996? Bush. Q.E.D.
Here’s what I wanted to say:
1996 was the year my girlfriend and I dropped out of college and drove from L.A. to Seattle in a rented station wagon. Neither of us had ever lived in Seattle. I think we just listened to Vitalogy and watched Singles until it became inevitable.
We moved into a one-bedroom on Capitol Hill. Our next-door neighbors were a couple of guys from Omaha who played guitars and sang drunkenly into the night, including a catchy number called “Sodomy Pancakes” (“He’s mixing up the batter in a bowl / But he ain’t making muffins or jelly roll”). These guys were cool. They were older. Maybe 23. They called themselves Herbert and Sammie, but those weren’t their real names, although in retrospect they weren’t really nicknames, either.
Herbert and Sammie dubbed the building Mold Manor for the black mold that would creep up the walls unless you ran the dehumidifier, which the residents—artists and deadbeats all—inevitably forgot to do.
Eventually I joined Herbert and Sammie’s band, playing bass and singing background vocals on “Sodomy Pancakes.” After practice we’d get Taco Bell and listen to tons of great music. Beck, Odelay. Archers of Loaf, All the Nation’s Airports — an album that holds up pretty well except for the song about Santa getting murdered on Christmas Eve. Juned, Every Night for You. It was the year of DJ Shadow’s Entroducing…,the US release of Pulp’s Different Class, Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, and Weezer’s Pinkerton.
“Hey, have you heard that Ontario song?” Sammie asked me one day. I had no idea what he was talking about. It was 1996, so we had to wait for them to play it again on KCMU-FM. We didn’t have to wait long.
“Ontario” probably falls under the death-knell category of novelty song, like They Might Be Giants’ “Istanbul.” Like that song, however, “Ontario” is absurdly catchy and knows what it is. “When I asked you why Ontario?” sings Ken Stringfellow, “You said it sounds good on the radio.” This was the first time I heard The Posies.
“Ontario” was enough to send me to Orpheum Records on Broadway to buy the album, Amazing Disgrace, and it blew my fucking mind. Whenever I listen to it, I’m snapped back to sitting on the cheap off-white carpet in the living room of Mold Manor and slipping the CD into the tray.
The Posies are a power pop band, and as Michael Chabon wrote recently, “power pop at its purest is the music of hit records that miss.” The Posies seemed constantly perched on the edge of stardom, and Amazing Disgrace was the kick-ass followup to Frosting on the Beater, which spawned the college radio hit “Dream All Day.”
Amazing Disgrace is bigger, louder, and more fun than its predecessor. There’s the anthemic “Please Return It,” which begins “Now…now is the time,” which is just a great way to kick off anything. The chorus of “Throwaway” (sung by the other core Posy, Jon Auer) is so hooky, the DEA should get involved. And there is an infectious number called “Everybody Is a Fucking Liar.” But this album didn’t make The Posies two-turntables-and-a-microphone famous, and they went back to a local indie label for the followup.
When Amazing Disgrace came out, critics focused on the brashness of the guitar sound compared to The Posies’ previous records. The implication was that they were making a self-conscious pivot toward grunge, years too late. The charge seems ridiculous now, for a couple of reasons.
First, no grunge record would include lyrics like “I’ll never have a friend quite as lovely again,” but Amazing Disgrace’s “Song #1” does.
Second, “Song #1” and the record as a whole feature a sure-handed use of dynamics. I still love early 90s grunge, but it had two volume levels at best: loud all the way through, or quiet verse, loud chorus. “Song #1” is constantly nudging the volume knob up and down—that little folksy refrain comes out of nowhere—but it’s always coherent and driving toward something. (To be fair, “Song #1” is not perfect: it includes the line “I never took a pill wasn’t guaranteed to thrill.”)
The Posies broke up in 1998. I went to their farewell show, a relentless twenty-song set featuring every fan favorite. I think the breakup lasted a couple of weeks before they played another farewell show. Then they released an EP, and another LP, and another.
Their most recent record, Solid States, came out this year, and it’s great. “Scattered” is one of their all-time best songs, and here they are playing it live at KEXP, which is just the new call letters of KCMU, where I first heard “Ontario” in 1996.
Either song would be a delightful addition to your birthday playlist.
Sidebar: The Posies on their favorite songs from Amazing Disgrace
Ken Stringfellow: “I think ‘Will You Ever Ease Your Mind,’ which is a song that we were playing as early as 1990, is a very sublime moment.”
Jon Auer: “As far as a track of mine, I’d lean towards “Throwaway”…. I play it solo still and The Posies always play it….it has that ‘proverbial resonance’ to me.”