Album of the Week: Ken Stringfellow – Danzig in the Moonlight

If there’s anything worse than a dreadful pun album title, it’s one that evokes memories of the worst song of the ’90s (it’s official – we’ve checked) by the long-forgotten T*pl*ad*r.

It’s an enormous relief to find that frizzy, coiffured hair is kept to a minimum on this, the fourth album by Posie Ken Stringfellow.

To refresh your memory, The Posies were arguably the great lost American band of the ’90s. Swept up in the craze for alt rock bands that followed grunge, The Posies found wider recognition along with the likes of the Afghan Whigs and Sugar even though none had the slightest thing to do with grunge. 1993′s Frosting on the Beater came to be seen as their definitive album, but they just couldn’t follow its success.

The band only occasionally bubble back up to the surface and only two albums have been made since 1996. Stringfellow and cohort Jon Auer toured acoustically in 2001 – a great show, but it made us a little sad to hear phrases like “come upstairs in five and I’ll square you up” being uttered to former heroes after supporting Kathryn Williams of all things. These guys should have been legends.

Maybe we shouldn’t feel too sorry for Stringfellow though? In amongst the varying fortunes of The Posies, he has recorded and toured with REM and the second incarnation of Big Star, after all, so he’s unlikely to be destitute.

And so in 2012 we find him living in Paris and releasing his first solo album in eight years and it’s an impressive piece of work. As the two Posies albums released in the last decade clearly demonstrated, those songwriting skills remain unblunted, and here, the voice – those familiar sweet tones that have anchored many’s a wonderful pop melody – remains equally intact.

Musically, there’s nothing here that will alienate fans of older works, and he can clearly thrive without Auer being welded to his hip. History Buffs for one is a stripped back piano n’ drum machine slowie that pushes the vocals to the fore. You’re the Gold could easily park itself on the last Decemberists album, which we see very much as a good thing.

Opener Jesus Was an Only Child throws an early curveball – low key, before it morphs into what’s pretty much the album’s only heads down rocker. That’s not to say this is otherwise a set of acoustic ballads though – You’re the Pride is stuffed full of big brass and Montmartre swagger.

The stylistic changes throughout are generally strength of the album. 110 or 220 V could be every bit the Americana classic while the sparkly electro pop of Superwise is clearly written as a big single. On occasion, though it doesn’t work. Pray is a bit of a clunker, a needless attempt to sound like Al Green with smoooothe sax and everything.

Buried in the further reaches of Danzig in the Moonlight (it’s also a little long at 14 tracks) is Doesn’t It Remind You Something featuring one Charity Rose Thielen of The Head and The Heart, a name we’re sadly unfamiliar with. The song’s DNA is about 77% Gram ‘n Emmylou and the rest Lee ‘n Nancy. Its laconic, talky charm is a treat and Thielen’s dusky tones mesh well with Stringfellow, who drops an octave or two to carry it off.

It’s moments such as these that ensure the album’s merits outweigh the negatives and it can even be comfortably filed alongside some of the Posies’ better works.

It was also our enormous pleasure to speak to Ken last week.

How does Danzig in the Moonlight differ from your previous solo works or that with the Posies?

I can see from some of the review feedback that this record is less immediate. Some people get it, more than a couple of reviewers have found it too convoluted, too diverse… meaning, somehow, I get penalized for being too ‘interesting’. For me it’s a big step up in terms of sophistication, musically, production-wise. One reviewer in Sweden gave the complaints as above and even said in his review ‘a year from now I’m going to regret writing this review as I feel this record will take time to fully absorb’. It’s meant to be that way. You read a pamphlet in five minutes. You spend a couple of weeks reading a novel. This kind of thing. I thought that making the album long, and adventurous, was a great statement. Too much for some people! The people that get it, get it.

The crap thing is, when I reach, I get bitten by critics. If I were to make the same record over and over again, not reaching for new horizons, I’d get criticized for that too. Or maybe not? I do find that for some reason, I get held to standards that others don’t. I find it unfair, but the whole process of reviewer vs. artform is flawed. it’s interesting to see blog reviews vs. mainstream press reviews of this album. Most of the mainstream press seem to find a way not to give me a perfectly good review, again, because my new album tries new things. It happened on the Posies album too, the last one was an incredible leap in production and songwriting, and so many mainstream media got uptight about that. Blogs have been raving, except for one or two idiots here and there but that’s the web population for you [ahem - Ed]. So… so, nothing. I MEANT the record to be this way. It’s not an accident, and it’s a fucking brilliant piece of work. If you think less than that, you haven’t thought or listened enough. End of story!

What inspired the record?

Apocalyptic, end times hysteria. The indifference of the world to all things gentle, subtle and modest. Love’s renewing passions. It’s perhaps my most Judeo-Christian album yet.

Are you looking forward to getting out on the road?

Definitely. I played the first show of the tour, already, in Istanbul this week. It’s good to get those muscles moving.

Danzig? Glen Danzig???

Miller. Glenn Miller. It’s a “Moonlight” serenade, after all.

Here’s Doesn’t It Remind You Something with Charity Rose Thielen for a listen…