Ken Stringfellow: 5 Albums That Changed My Life

Ken Stringfellow: 5 Albums That Changed My Life

Ken Stringfellow of the Posies is celebrating the eighteenth anniversary of his solo album, Touched (September 11), this week. In honor of its release, Stringfellow shared with TIDAL some albums that shaped his life.

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Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade

Let me set the scene for you: I grew up in 1970s-80s Bellingham, Washington, a town of some 50,000 people set amongst the forests, bays and mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Soft summers of bottle rocket fights and blackberries contrasted with a long season with no name that lasted from October until the 5th of July, marked by tree-snapping winds and endless rain. I do not recall a single Fourth of July that wasn’t rained out during the eight years I lived there.

How did we even know about music? And more importantly, who cared? Despite the best intentions of cultural inertia, occasionally the rest of the world managed to seep in through the cracks. Or, shall we say, images from that world. David Fricke’s review of the Zen Arcade album in Rolling Stone gave an enticing glimpse of the record — the review coming six months after the album’s release — but it was surely again some months before I actually could get my hands on it. This kind of frustration was very motivating in certain ways. The anticipation was part of the experience.

We had punk rockers in Bellingham — but being so far out on the edge of world, or so it felt, nobody could be certain they were properly executing the look, lifestyle or actions of a true punk rocker. But there had to be rules. Rules make things comprehensible.

My issue was that any group activity was one that I was certain to be excluded from, so I didn’t bother at that point to learn the rules. But whatever dim image I had of ‘punk rock’ in my small-town teenage brain… Zen Arcade completely vaporized it. It was extremely liberating. Don’t learn the rules, don’t conform, don’t bother trying to be understood. Just feel and let yourself be felt. And imagine my further surprise when Hüsker Dü morphed after this into a band of incomparable melodic skill.

XTC, Skylarking

I came to XTC via a record store dude’s recommendation. There was a record store in Bellingham where you could buy ‘70s Who bootlegs, but, by the end of my freshman year, I was ready to move on from the ‘70s. After all, it was 1983.

I’d discovered the Clash because they had hit records by then but needed some help navigating the current landscape. The record store dude recommended two great albums — The Buzzcocks’ A Different Kind of Tension and XTC’s Mummer. Both were kind of late-in-the-game, uncharacteristic albums for the two groups, but they were refreshingly miles from what I knew at that point.

I dug deep into both bands’ catalogues from those points of departure. This was, for XTC, the beginning of ‘the great languishing’ of the mid ‘80s that saw them releasing records that didn’t sell, and bolstering that success with a heady touring schedule of exactly zero concerts. But, I loved their albums — Drums & Wires, Black Sea, English Settlement is a near flawless run of intellectual, quirky and beautiful music. That the band was nearly invisible in the American rock vista at the point I discovered them did not bode well for people like me who were considered quirky and intellectual. (Trust me, I didn’t designate myself this nor did I wear it as a badge of honor — it’s merely that thanks to these perceived traits I was first in the triage of prey, most likely to be chosen for torment.)

But there were signs that a shift might be underway. The Smiths and the Cure, the most emblematic bands for outsiders and lost souls, were now routinely making their way up the Billboard chart. Maybe we weren’t so few. Merely isolated?

News of a new XTC album was highly anticipated by… me and two of my friends, maybe, in our hometown. Another album no one would hear. And where their previous album The Big Express seemed intent on jarring listeners awake, Skylarking when it arrived seemed intent on seduction; the opening majesty of ‘Summer’s Cauldron’ was absolutely breathtaking upon first listen. It had a slickness and pop sensibility that I’m not sure the band had ever shown to this degree, but it was far from cloying. It has musical heft and lyrical depth.

What range of textures:  the icy digital sheen of ‘Another Satellite,’ the bebop folk of ‘Mermaid Smiled’ and a straight-up Beatles homage with ‘Earn Enough for Us.’ There was a lot to work through, discuss and revisit with my XTC-woke pals.

And, then, all of a sudden, the B-side to the first single released (we’d bought the ‘Grass’ 12-inch before the album’s street date, no doubt) became a hit record. From that point…the underdogs were suddenly favorites to win, place and show.

Big Star, #1 Record

I have written so much about this band; indeed I became a part of this band out of sheer devotion to their cause. I’ve written liner notes for their reissues… what more could I have to say on the subject? If I had to isolate a moment that was a turning point, musically speaking, for me, I can tell you that when my band, assembled in our rehearsal room, put on the newly-minted CD of #1 Record for the first time, with the sludgy first descending riff of ‘Feel’ answered by a phasey chime from a higher guitar —  it was unspoken and immediate: we had found what we were really trying to achieve.

Coming from our small town beginnings, safe, dull, and culturally flat, we had musical dexterity (thank you, boredom) but our subject matter was rather lightweight. What had we lived to earn the perspective that makes one’s commentary on the human condition worth listening to?

Well, we had seen some things; we did have a little damage from childhood, but it didn’t seem fully welcome in the pop constructions we were assembling. It’s like we were searching for an ideal, and this is the main issue I have with those who make, consume and assign us the badge of ‘power pop.’

It seeks to restore music to or suspend music in the tropes of a bygone era, as if what the Beatles began and the Raspberries finished was a perfect moment…. an ideal that should be upheld/restored. Where teenage girls swoon and scream over handsome young men. Where guys with puppy dog eyes and hearts conquer the world with their shared wit and camaraderie. It’s a white male fantasy, largely. Many men wanted us to subscribe to that ideal, seeing our potential, and we have been disappointing them for almost 30 years now.

Big Star was highly melodic, beautifully recorded, but also, lyrically mature. Straight from the trenches of the early 1970s, it was entirely codpiece- and Tolkien-free. When I say they seemed like ‘normal’ people I don’t mean to say ‘unexceptional’. I mean to say that they were speaking to me in an everyday language that I could understand, even nearly 20 years later.

The fantasy that, say, KISS provided in that era, I found it exhausting to visit. Big Star was a relief. Later, it should be noted, their Third album went unreleased for years, with labels rejecting it as ‘too disturbing’. Precisely — an album that is, in fact, poetic, tender and raw would indeed disturb the party where we should be rocking all night and partying every day, sentenced to eternity in a disco inferno.

I can’t say enough about Big Star’s intelligent and heart-tugging vocal harmonies. What my bandmate and I were blindly groping for, Big Star executed flawlessly in a prior decade. I have many memories of being stuffed in our ancient Dodge van, hurtling down the West Coast, sleeping on an irregular assembly of amps of varying heights, my nose nearly touching the vinyl ceiling, waking from sleep as our van transmitted every bump and crack in the road directly to the passenger compartment, and the whole scene made more surreal by a choir of reverb drenched Big Star ‘aaaaaah’s, swirling with a phase shifter’s watery shimmer.

Teenage Fanclub, A Catholic Education

If the Big Star albums were on non-stop rotation for the road trips we took around our first album, this album was surely the most played album on our tours for our second album. A bit about the Posies, my band: we made that first album, 1988’s Failure in my bandmate’s home studio, he and I playing all the instruments.

Released on cassette, it somehow went viral. Something that was barely released ended up getting serious commercial radio airplay in Seattle, and when it was scooped up by a local indie label it continued to get big plays on radio stations nationwide.

The Seattle success caught us by surprise; we hadn’t even found bandmates yet, but we soon did, and we played a lot of local shows and made a couple West Coast runs. The album’s sweet nature and its acoustic underpinnings are a reflection of the fact we’d played one acoustic live show before making the album. Our second album, finding us now armed with a British producer and a studio budget that would easily have bought us each a house in 1990 Seattle, is an elaborate, occasionally precious, production tour de force that was made by a band that had done the run to L.A. and back a couple of times and played many local shows, but we’d never toured per se. Even a week of working the coast from Portland to San Diego is not comparable to doing the full USA, playing night after night, sometimes to nobody, for months on end.

We did it four times for our second album … support tours for Redd Kross and … Gene Love Jezebel (it made sense at the time) was part one followed by a full U.S. tour in the dead of winter (part two). A long support tour with Replacements was part three and for some reason rather than rest and reflect on that, we decided to undertake another full U.S. tour in the spring, nine months after the release of the album, which was rather unnecessary. Or was it? All those drives listening to A Catholic Education might be the key, along with 150 shows under our belt, to what led to our breakthrough album.

A Catholic Education is, in essence, a very sincere, very melodic guitar indie pop album. But it’s unsentimental in one respect: it doesn’t really have any retro trappings; if melodies and guitars descend from the Beatles, it’s hard to see the resemblance here — like how whales are said have descended from dog-like creatures that walked on land. There’s no homage to the ghosts of melodic rock past. The album is both glorious and sludgy.

The vocals are laid back and stoner-y; the tempos are upbeat. Yes, Dinosaur Jr. already existed, but the mixture in Teenage Fanclub’s music was closer to what we could, possibly, attain. The band released the splendid Bandwagonesque while we were still out on our nine months of touring, which followed the opposite trajectory we were on; we were looking to deconstruct and move forward, TFC was looking to refine and get more in tune with their single greatest influence: Big Star.

Meanwhile, we took Bandwagonesque‘s producer into the studio and made our breakthrough album. A Catholic Education was our most listened to album of our 1990-91 tours, and we used the band’s producer Don Fleming afterwards to make a game-changing album.

I’m proud to say that album, Frosting on the Beater was the most listened to album by Radiohead on their Pablo Honey tour, and what do you know, for their next, game-changing album, they used John Leckie, who produced our album Dear 23. Circle of life…

Twenty One Pilots, Blurryface

You’re going to think I’m taking the piss here, because this record is recent and successful and old codgers like me are only supposed to grumble and grind our dentures at the young and successful.

I was introduced to this album by my daughter, Aden, now 15. I do believe she was 13 at the time. I don’t know how this two-piece ensemble divides the labor in the studio, but the production and instrumentation on their recordings are imaginative and richly detailed. The hooks are strong, but the subject matter is mostly psychological: grappling with out of control emotions and overwhelming internal forces. Facing demons.

The songs are not struggles for romance, like 90% of the music coming through the radio (and Twenty One Pilots are on the radio a lot), but struggles for the soul, and the struggle toward mental health. That this resonates with millions of teenagers now is no accident; this music is part of a strategy for coping with an insane world that is not of your making, and has been handed to you without instruction.

Aden and I went to see the band in Madrid this year, and to fill the space in an arena setting, the two musicians were augmented by walls of technology, an entire galaxy of LEDs flaming and morphing; there’s a burning car and a body double trick that seems to allow one of the members to be in two places in a millisecond’s time.

But it’s not all spectacle. The set-up in the arena involves a second, smaller stage placed at the back of the arena’s floor, and it’s here the band broke things down to songs that rely less on enormous beats than softly pulsing, repetitive piano progressions and falsetto melodies. Point taken.

I would say this band is the biggest influence on my contributions to the Posies album in progress as we speak. My new songs are all about mental health — not just mine, but also ways I’ve been affected by the mental health issues of others —  sometimes in ways that severely tested my empathy.

I would say the thick, sandwiched layers of synths, beats and pianos on our new record owe a direct debt to Twenty One Pilots, and thus, I have to give credit to my daughter for leading me toward sources of on inspiration I may not have encountered otherwise (example: how did I not stumble across Jason Schwartzman’s excellent Coconut Records project until Aden played me tracks, despite the fact the releases are about a decade old?).

Music is wonderful in that way: old passes to young, young passes to old and recordings preserve steps in your life at many different ages, both as artist and listener. Ideally, it will be your best moments, or at least your most real. And there’s still time for some of us, at least, to add to the gallery of moments.

This year I’m taking Touched on the road, plus songs and stories from 30+ years in music. The shows will be in non-club environments, chosen for listener friendly atmosphere and the presence of an acoustic piano. Dates below:

9/12 Nashville TN — Music Makers Stage at Delgado Guitars
9/13 Memphis TN — house concert SOLD OUT
9/14 St. Louis MO — secret show
9/15 Indianapolis IN — Postal Recording Studio
9/16 Columbus OH — house concert
9/17 Cleveland OH — Bop Stop
9/18 Camp Hill (Harrisburg area) PA — house concert
9/19 Providence RI — Music Mansion
9/20 Cambridge MA — The Lilypad
9/21 New York NY — Mercury Lounge w Bridget St. John
9/22 Haddon Heights NJ (Philadelphia area) — Gradwell House Studio
9/23 Chevy Chase MD (DC/Baltimore area) — house concert
9/24 Pittsburgh PA — Bantha Tea Bar
9/25 Cincinnati OH — Christ Church Cathedral
9/26 Detroit MI — Steinway Piano Gallery
9/27 Morehead KY — Rowan Country Arts Center
9/28 Athens GA — Flicker Bar
9/29 Chattanooga TN — The Woodshop
9/30 Charlotte NC — Petra’s
10/1 Charleston SC — house concert
10/2 Savannah GA — Neighborhood Comics
10/3 Miami FL — house concert
10/4 St. Petersburg FL — St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club
10/5 Pensacola FL — house concert
10/6 Hattiesburg MS — Thirsty Hippo
10/8 Jacksonville FL — Ronan School of Music
10/9 Orlando FL — Timucua Arts Foundation
10/17 Vancouver CANADA — Lounge Above the Legion
10/18 Tacoma WA — Alma Mater w Carrie Akre
10/19 Portland OR — Hollywood Senior Center
10/20 Redding CA — secret show
10/22 Oakland CA — Piedmont Piano Company
10/23 Santa Cruz CA — secret show
10/24 San Diego CA — Vinyl Junkies Record Shack
10/27 Pasadena CA — All Saints Church
10/29 Yucca Valley CA — Gatos Trail Recording
10/30 Las Vegas NV — secret show
10/31 Salt Lake City UT — Man vs Music Recording
11/1 Boise ID — house show
11/2 Spokane WA — Music City
11/3 Wenatchee WA — Radar Station
11/5 Richland WA — Emerald of Siam
11/6 Port Townsend WA — Rainshadow Recording Studio
11/7 Port Angeles WA — Little Devil’s Lunchbox
11/8 Seattle WA — St. Mark’s Cathedral (w Jesca Hoop)
11/9 Bellingham WA — Sehome High School 

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