"Knowledge gained is knowledge used, it never works out different" Ken Stringfellow, "You Drew"
One of many gentle precepts woven throughout Ken Stringfellow's Soft Commands, the lyric also conveys an artist's unfolding, which cannot help but inform the learning and the craft. As unpretending and accomplished as the artist behind it, Soft Commands is wholly reflective of its sophisticated assembly in Paris, Stockholm, Senegal, New York City and Hollywood. An elevated collection of gorgeous ballads, Spector-like ascension and buzzy guitars, it is the glow of Touched (Stringfellow’s previous album) further refined.
Three years since the release of the excellent Mitch Easter-produced Touched, Stringfellow has not been idle. Solo tours. Touring and recording with both R.E.M. and Big Star, as well as standing membership in Scott McCaughey's Minus 5 collective. He has also lent a producer's hand to an assortment of releases, including recordings by Damien Jurado and the Long Winters. There was a reunion of sorts with onetime partner Jon Auer by way of the Private Lives EP. And earlier this year Houston Party Records reissued a 15th-anniversary CD of The Posies' 1988 Popllama debut, Failure, the less-handled beginnings of a band who would enliven a shining genre when discord was the preferred sound of indie rock.
The delicate counsel and lush arrangements that inhabit Soft Commands should
be familiar to anyone who has followed Stringfellow's solo career. This Sounds
his 1997 debut, was a departure from The Posies' gleaming pop.
Anticipating the band's dissolution, among other things, the result was rending
Experimental loops, minimal production and hip-hop breaks cannot detract from
Stringfellow's poignancy as he enfolds exit, misunderstanding and loss in gentle
However, Soft Commands' nearer intimate is unquestionably Touched.
Initially meant to be recorded with the band Saltine, that album combines retro
instruments such as Hammond organ and pedal steel with Stringfellow's versatile
A luckless country try-on ("Down Like Me"), Brechtian pose ("Uniforms") and slender,
romantic plaint ("Lover's Hymn" ) are among the most inventive offerings. There
is a definite warmth on Touched that is absent from Goodbye, with an almost
imploring hope replacing the sense of affliction.
Soft Commands, produced in part by Stringfellow, is a distinguished graduation,
connecting both contemporary and signature craft. As I listened I thought of
Nick Drake. Joey Molland. Elliott Smith. Chris Stamey. Joe Jackson. Chris Bell.
Pure pop vocals, recalling both Matthew Sweet and Paul McCartney, provide light
and grace throughout, the combined mystique of ease and lyric. Autoharp, saw,
and mandolin are among the lush instrumentation.
"You Drew" is reclamation endowed with resonant piano: "Hello, grace, it's been awhile/ Your footsteps can go unnoticed/ That's not to say that you weren't missed/ But I guess you weren't invited." The towering Spector wall is evident, along with summer harmonies, in "When U Find Someone." The promise of promised-already, in love and playing old records over and over. "Don't Die," assonant, Invasion-era buzz, has some of the most fun: "Italian torture gave us DaVinci / but also Medici / What can it teach me? And "Let Me Do" sexily reconsiders the lover's petition of Touched.
Singer/songwriter can be an innocuous mantle, but not so here. Ken Stringfellow has fashioned classical pop with a modern intention, informed by a rarified cast. Transcendent and well-turned, Soft Commands is another exceptional recording from a talented, aware artist.