First Look: New Quasi Album

 

On American Gong, Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss, abetted by
Joanna Bolme, channel their inner Who. The payoff, though, is all pop – with
power.

 

By Jennifer Kelly

 

Quasi isn’t exactly settling gracefully into an elder
statesman slot. The band – a partnership between Sam Coomes and
Sleater-Kinney/Jicks drummer Janet Weiss – has been going, intermittently, for
17 years now, with eight studio albums and a clutch of singles to show for it. Conflict
was always part of the band’s DNA,
on a personal level, one guesses, since the two principles are divorced former
partners, but also on a musical one. There’s a deep divide between Quasi’s
witheringly caustic lyrics and its buoyant sing-along melodies, between its
Beatles-pop rocksichord hooks and the surging maelstrom of its guitar freak-outs,
and this chasm has only grown deeper of late.

 

The addition of Joanna Bolme (also from the Jicks) at bass
has enabled a volume-blistered, thunderous rock sound, underlining the
M80-in-the-parking-lot explosiveness of Weiss’ drumming and bringing out
Coomes’ inner guitar hero. It’s no accident that new album American Gong (Kill Rock Stars) ends with a cover
of the Who’s “Heaven and Hell”. There’s a Live at Leeds-level rock
intensity to much of this album, married, as the Who’s songs often were, to
transcendent, melodic hooks.  Consider
“Repulsion,” which kicks off in a squeak of feedback, and half obliterates its
melodies under distorted thicknesses of guitar distortion. Its lyrical imagery
is harsh with whores and piss and angry bed-wars. Yet when the clangor breaks
for the chorus, the single word title dragged out over a series of shifting,
tightly harmonized intervals, the payoff is all pop.  

 

American Gong is an unusually guitar-centric Quasi album. Coomes’
keyboards take a leading role in only a couple of these songs, in the Beatles
psychedelic “Everything and Nothing at All” and the burned and busted piano
ballad “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez.” There’s some acoustic strumming in
bittersweet “The Jig Is Up” and a blues-rocking vamp in “Black Dog and
Bubbles,” but for the most part, the six-string is electrified, fuzzed and
turned way, way up.

 

Guitar rock tends naturally towards triumph, and perhaps
this is why American Gong is downbeat, but not actually depressing. Mortality,
setbacks, hard times all take a turn in Coomes’ lyrical scenarios, yet none are
allowed the final word. Watch how “Bye Bye Blackbird” (following the nursery
rhyme melody of “Baa Baa Blacksheep”) gets the financial crisis down in two
lines: “Bye bye blackbird/days are getting cold/snakes and lizards are sucking
up the gold/chrome-plated plastic they give you in return/teach you a lesson
you shouldn’t have to learn.” Or how “Laissez les Bon Temp Roulez” observes
that one person’s life is “just a piss in the ocean, a grain of sand.” And yet
there’s a sense of persistence and modest overcoming in these songs.  “Your sadness and sickness are nothing to
prize,” sings Coomes in “What Now”, “Leave them behind and rise.” After the
extremely downbeat, borderline whiny “Laissez,” the band slips in a bit of
self-mockery in “Howler,” a 41-second recording of a dog howling, possibly at
the moon.  

 

The best songs on American Gong are clustered toward
the front. Nothing in the latter half matches “Repulsion,” “Little White
Horse,” or “Bye Bye Blackbird.” “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez,” in particular, lasts
far too long and showcases far too well the shortcomings of Coomes reedy,
strangled voice. Still, hang on for the Who cover, with its gleeful guitar
vortex and chaos-flirting, beat-rupturing fills on drums. If the Who could turn
their views on the afterlife into one of the world’s great rock songs, then you
can’t blame Quasi for dipping pop into darkness as well.  

 

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