Ken Stringfellow is hard to get a fix on, both because his music is listenable without being too easily accessible to a mainstream audience, and because his output is limited. Well, it is and it isn’t.
Danzig in the Moonlight (Spark & Shine) is Stringfellow’s fourth solo release in 15 years. Originally known for founding alternative-rock band The Posies with Jon Auer in the late ’80s, the hit “Dream All Day” rose above the grunge of the era. That slice of power-pop perfection might have seemed lost in the moment, but The Posies have soldiered on with their latest release, Blood/Candy (Rykodisc, 2010).
To borrow one of The Posies’ album titles, Stringfellow has sampled the “Frosting on the Beater” from a lot of musical cakes, working on several albums with R.E.M. and their side project, The Minus 5; playing in a reformed version of Big Star until Alex Chilton’s death in 2010; releasing two albums by his garage-rock band, The Disciplines; and producing albums by people like Damien Jurado and The Long Winters.
If this pop-music genius seems slightly elusive, it’s because Stringfellow is refining an incredible songwriting sensibility.
On Danzig in the Moonlight, Stringfellow stretches his wings farther than ever before, with a set that is such a stylistic tour de force that some critics find it a bit schizophrenic. Stringfellow has called the album “a culmination of all that I’ve learned,” and even includes 20th-century avant-garde in the mix. While the album might not include atonalities, that music influenced his thought process. “With no formal resolution, there isn’t chaos, but constant motion—a flow,” Stringfellow says.
Some of his new songs are structured in sections, like chamber-orchestra pieces. The album opener, “Jesus Was an Only Child,” starts like waking slowly to a dreamlike sunrise, then jolts into jagged psychedelia. “Four AM Birds/The End of All Light/The Last Radio” is a prog-rock-influenced suite of three songs.
Perhaps one of the most crucial things Stringfellow has learned over the years was from R.E.M.: their spontaneity, despite high-budget, major-label stakes. “I make records in a completely different way now,” Stringfellow says. “Now, I compose in the studio.” He feels freer to experiment after having his horizons broadened.
Stringfellow’s songs are artfully crafted sleepers, beguiling with their beautiful surfaces and sometimes hiding a pinch of venom, or at least unpleasant truths. “Come you phantom limbs, the history buffs are waiting,” the plaintive chorus of “History Buffs” echoes—poignant words from a pop songwriter approaching middle age and confronting aging and loss, as the best songsmiths do.
Only occasionally do the results fall flat, as on the Stax-style horns of “Pray,” the style eclipsing the substance of Stringfellow’s usually incisive lyrics. That might be because of his fervor that comes across occasionally. “It’s all been a gift, for some goofy kid from Bellingham, Wash.,” he says. “My life’s mission is one of transformation and growth,” adding that that’s a dimension of his spiritual side. In “Doesn’t It Remind You of Something,” two ne’er-do-wells rankle each other, yet in the beauty of the song, he believes they find some kind of redemption.
By the same token, the album title sounds like a grim pun about the horrors of war, but Stringfellow explains that Danzig, in between the years when it was a battleground during the world wars, was a city-state, the Free City of Danzig, as he says, “composed of many different elements, many different religions—no official anything.” He finds it a symbol for himself. “It’s a metaphor for my own way of being, living in a country I wasn’t born in (France). I don’t fit in anywhere; I fit in everywhere.”
w/ Tolchock Trio
The Urban Lounge
230 S. 500 East
Wednesday, Feb. 6, 9 p.m.