One of the great regrets in leaving my adopted hometown of Seattle is not being able to go up to the Sunset Tavern or down to the Green Room on a Sunday night and see Ken Stringfellow, either solo or with partner Jon Auer (in a duo affectionately referred to as "Pickled Posies," as that usually accurately reflected their state). The Posies were masters at the elements of classic songcraft, and Stringfellow hasn't lost any of that in his solo career. His skill and talent grows with each record he releases.
Soft Commands, his 2004 solo album, is astoundingly good at moments, and yet, falls down at others. The songs inspire the kind of moments in which the song you're hearing suddenly becomes your favorite song ever, songs that are so well written that they sound like you've known them forever. Such is the case with the first track, “You Drew”. “Any Love” is a better R.E.M. song than anything they've written recently – well, that's not fair. It's definitely got some vintage 1990's R.E.M. moments in it, but one could also argue that they came from the same sources that Stringfellow generally draws from.
“Known Diamond” is breathtaking, but I'm less enamored of the Prince-meets-Brian Wilson styled (okay, even that description is going to make somebody want to hear it immediately) “When U Find Someone”. I find myself preferring the songs on which Stringfellow plays everything himself (or with only a few other players) – it's as though that restraint forces him to keep the songs streamlined and focused. “For Your Sake” could have been a Pet Sounds-styled wedding cake of sound, but instead, it's more compact, keeps the melody central.
If you listen to “Je Vous En Prie” in the background and don't focus on the lyrics, you're going to think, “Gosh, this sounds like some quirky French pop song from the 60's.” It's also one of the less successful lyrics, but the disjointed feeling evoked could also be deliberate. “You Become The Dawn” was one of my least favorites, but it also seems to be the one that sticks in my head, whether I like it or not, this odd combination of reggae and r n b and Elton John, with a horn section thrown in for good measure.