"There's a couple of things I'm embarrassed of," says the Posies' Jon Auer of the band's new limited-edition four-CD box, At Least, At Last. "But that's the purpose of a box set, to show the warts-and-all aspect of the group in question."
If that let-it-all-hang-out approach sounds dismaying, it's understandable given the dubious value of most of the box sets cluttering record store shelves. But whereas many boxes seem like high-priced rummage sales contrived to entice record buyers into investing just a few more dollars in some long-defunct artist, At Least, At Last really feels like a gift to the fans. Released by Not Lame records and featuring a twenty-four-page booklet with rare photos and liner notes by Auer and co-founder Ken Stringfellow, the set is overflowing with demos, live tracks, outtakes, cover songs and B-sides. And the collection not only unearths plenty of long-sought-after nuggets, but also provides insight into the band's often frustrating career.
Formed while Auer and Stringfellow were still in their teens, the Posies found college radio favor quickly when they released their homespun debut, Failure, on Pop Llama in 1988. They made their DGC debut two years later, but their overt pop songs and vulnerable lyrics were overshadowed by the "grunge" then being exported from their Seattle home. Despite three critically successful albums, their major-label years were plagued by consistent lineup changes and they returned to Pop Llama for their 1998 bow, Success.
It was during the band's final months when fan and bootlegger Kelly Minnis proposed the idea of a rarities collection to Auer and Stringfellow after he interviewed them for a fanzine. They agreed to the idea and the trio spent about a year and a half sorting through their personal archives, a process that was as revelatory for Auer as he hopes it will be for fans.
"It was kind of cool because there were some things that were definitely lost and when I went looking for them I found other things," he says. "There's a version of 'Ramblin' Rose' by the MC5 on there; it's from a totally unmarked tape I found that just happened to have an entire show of us back in '91. I think we actually made the tape ourselves."
Among the many curios are a live recording of Failure's "Believe In Something Other" from the Posies' first public performance, a batch of tracks from Sept. 1991 sessions for an aborted album (known in Posies lore as "The Lost Sessions"), Auer and Stringfellow's performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Seattle Kingdome in '95 and demos from every phase of the band's career.
The last are perhaps the most enlightening. In some cases, songs went through a lengthy gestation, as with the tune "Apology" from 1990's Dear 23. The box provides both Stringfellow's original demo -- a stripped-down, loosely recorded version with vastly different lyrics -- and Auer's demo -- recorded nine months later during the Dear 23 sessions; Auer's version retains only the chorus from Stringfellow's original and bears the majestic arrangement it would take on the album. But in the majority of cases, these song sketches illustrate how carefully each songwriter plotted out his work before entering the studio, even going so far as to arrange and play all the instruments. But Auer notes that wasn't always an asset.
"[The demo for] 'World' [from 1995's Amazing Disgrace] is one of those things where I play everything on it and it's done on a four-track. There was a simplicity to it and a mood to it that when everybody else got their hands on it, it became more pro and less on the heartfelt side, I guess. That's been a common problem of mine, to spend too much time on a demo and then get really frustrated when somebody can't capture the mood of something I did by myself."
If anything, At Least, At Last shows how appropriate it is that Auer and Stringfellow have spent the better part of this year performing their songs as an acoustic duo -- after all, that's how the songs were originally written. And in Auer's mind, the project may be the reason the old friends are touring together again at all.
"I think the best part of the whole thing was just Ken and I getting back together. In many ways the box set is actually more the reason that we're doing things like playing acoustic together. Because now we spend a large quantity of time together, and we hadn't done that for a couple of years. But it was suddenly like, 'Oh yeah, you're the guy that gets my jokes, you're the guy that I grew up with, you're the guy I did all this with, and I still like you.'"
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