Seattle in the late 1980s was a breeding ground for the future sound. Although the history books naturally focus on the heavy grunge scene and Sub Pop records, this scene was much more diverse and interesting. One such band that didn’t fit the mold was the posies. Lead by two Power pop–loving songwriters Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, they were part of an alternate local scene that featured more melodic bands such as Young Fresh Fellows, Flop, and the Fastbacks. Their first record, failure, appeared in 1988 and was an exciting blast of rock’n roll that had nothing to do with what was going on in their scene. With its youthful charm and vigor, perhaps it isn’t too surprising that the major labels came knocking on their door, with the young group signing to Geffen.
If Failure captured the thrilling sound of a young band discovering itself and establishing its identity via the records that its members happened to love, Dear 23 is the sound of a band learning what it can do with a budget and the ability to record in a proper recording studio and a producer. Considering the band had a knack for sixties-sounding pop—which fit in nicely with a very quiet Sixties revival taking place in the late 1980s––it seemed that John Leckie would be a natural fit. On paper, the pairing seemed absolutely inspired; his work with bands such as the Stone Roses, The La’s, The Lilac Time, and XTC showed that he understood how to work with more melodic, acoustic–based rock bands.
Indeed, Leckie didn’t do the songs wrong. He captured the essence of the group’s love of 60s pop and 70s Power Pop, while definitely giving them a contemporary feel that never sounded too retro. From the opening notes of the catchy and fun Monkees-like “My Big Mouth” it’s clear that song Auer and Stringfellow had a major sweet tooth; over the next 10 songs, they would be frantic and anxious (“Golden Blunders,” “Help Yourself”) while never worrying about wearing their hearts on their sleeve from time to time (“Apology,” “You Avoid Parties”). Although it was their second album, Dear 23 felt very much like a debut proper, one that showed this was a young band worth paying attention to for the future.
Unfortunately, something was lost between conception and completion, as Dear 23 feels quite tentative. On first listen, though, you might not notice; there is a confectioners-sweet glaze that gives a nice pop shine with just enough of a hint of the 1960s to keep the record from being totally a retro act. Yet on many of the songs, the demo versions are a little bit rougher and have a little more personality. For instance, mid-tempo rocker “Suddenly Mary” has pretty harmonies and a rather sweet guitar lick, all wrapped up in a shiny bow. The demo version, however, contains the same elements, but with a little more dirt and grit, the song feels a lot more lifelike. It’s a matter of personal taste, of course; the earnestness of the final production stripped away a little of the personality that made the song sound great. And if it’s demos you like, you’ll find plenty here to love; the second disc contains a plethora of rare songs that would appear in different forms on future albums, b-sides, or compilations,
In spite of its hedged production, Dear 23 is by no means a bad record. Indeed, it is a lovely one and this expanded edition helps to show that if anything it was a record of transition, that of an earnest young band working hard to find its identity. It’s obvious they would quickly discover who they were, as what came next was nothing short of a grand slam masterpiece…