Ken Stringfellow is that friend from elementary school who always seemed more interested in talking to your parents than talking to you. While you, A.C. Newman, Belle, Sebastian, Jeff Magnum, and others sat in your basement playing ping-pong and discussing four-tracks, Ken was upstairs with your dad’s company — Jackson Browne, Todd Rundgren, sometimes Elton John — discussing orchestral arrangements, horn sections and piano chord progressions. You were never really sure why you invited him over anyway.
Of course, the grown Stringfellow has developed an impressive track record as far as independent music goes. In the past fifteen years or so, Stringfellow has been a member or collaborator of the Posies, Big Star, R.E.M., Harvey Danger, the Long Winters, and a wide swath of other acts. It almost becomes surprising that his third solo album, Soft Commands, feels so much like a truly singular effort. Despite the extensive band of indie cronies, Stringfellow uses his solo billing to set aside the pressure of his status as something of an indie-rock Kevin Bacon (I hear they play Six Degrees of Ken Stringfellow at parties in Seattle all the time) to celebrate the lavish, ornamented style of his aforementioned piano-pop heroes.
Soft Commands opens with the almost uncanny Jackson Browne impression of “You Drew,” but Stringfellow’s fragile voice and an often off-kilter drum part add a twinge of unique character. This quickly becomes the tone of practically the entire album; each song feels familiar with a hint of detachment, like a cousin you never see. The chorus of “When U Find Someone” unarguably cops the Beach Boys’ vocal harmony formula, but the jazz chords of the verses sound like Billy Joel threw them together by accident. “Don’t Die” takes Elton John’s late-era heavy metal guitar/piano instrumentation and lays it over what sounds like a modern show tune, almost a Rent outtake.
The album does have its moments of unmatched originality. “For Your Sake” is a gentle but beautifully tense tune driven by a twitchy click track, a buzzing synth, and a soft layer of piano. The closest analogy would be Genesis-style prog-rock, but the song’s repetition and lyrical parallelism are too precise and unpretentious to draw such a comparison. Even “You Become the Dawn,” which Stringfellow himself seems to bill as a token dub reggae tune, is marked by a huge pop chorus and a bizarre organ/vocal break that sounds like a church hymn. It’s the combination of all these different elements into single songs that denotes Stringfellow’s real skill, a kind of genre mashing that would in most contexts be annoyingly grating.
But thanks to Stringfellow’s age and experience, his formula works perfectly. Soft Commands gels into a passive-aggressive jab at modern pop music, indiscriminate toward mainstream marketability or underground cred. Ken Stringfellow is of neither caste, and this unique position coupled with his sage-like musical wisdom allows him to breathe some retro sensibility into modern pop in such a manner that a young up-and-comer like Sondre Lerche or Ben Kweller couldn’t possibly sustain. Soft Commands grows tired and somewhat repetitive at times, but if that’s what it takes for a few know-it-all hipsters to dig up their dads’ Supertramp and Traffic records, then so be it.