There is so much to admire about this Oregon duo, including their reclamation of rock’s initial outsider’s status; their reckless refusal to compromise edgy, strident music into paths of comfortable commercialism; their steadfast insistence on the primacy of left-wing causes; and their rhythmic scrimmages. That Quasi has so codified its MO that recent albums have become hard to distinguish from one another only heightens their peculiar enigmatic charm.
Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, a one-time Sleater-Kinney stalwart, is an occasional songwriter and ex-wife to partner Sam Coomes, the former Donner Party leader who here plays all the other instruments. He’s a curmudgeon, crank and meddler; a real hero to the voiceless, the pinned-down and the in-need of visions. There are few like him in American music. Quasi’s quietly bombastic music offers a temporary balm to the overheated lyrics, which find consolation in pain and disappointment. The imposing R&B Transmogrification is a fresh blast that clears out stale air: it’s quirky, moody, jagged and literate. Coomes yips and howls at the lurking powers and dives back into his self-produced, self-conscious notes, scurrying them along their inclusive paths. The imaginative music includes everything commercial pop lacks: the pioneering spirit navigating a sinking ship, violations of civilized taste and neurotic condemnations. Oh, and it rocks, like Pavement but with hip action, like Sonic Youth’s early ’90s stuff without the scowling SoHo art crowd. The best songs are tense studio-driven constructs: the opening dirge “Ghost Dreaming” and the mutant keyboard skronk/guitar-bent “Sugar,” a song whose melody and theme diametrically opposes its title.
Coomes, who has also been in, or helped out, Heatmiser, Built to Spill, Elliott Smith and the Go-Betweens, has a fine ear for the sanctuaries of sunny day pop when he puts aside his assaultive noise machinery keyboards. There’s a primitive incandescence to the songs on Featuring “Birds” that is not mined with regularity on the debut; he still rants against mechanized civilization, and the only happy love affair is still one that ends with a double suicide, but why quibble with the autumnal resignation of “I Never Want to See You Again” and the alligator tears of “You Fucked Yourself,” a shimmering hate note as sheer as the skin of a rotting fruit. This is Quasi’s finest album, filled with musical detours, depressive lyrical hijinks and cajoling notes. Sharp, short and poignant, “The Poisoned Well” adopts E. Smith’s keyboard dusk while alertly reminding us why Todd Rundgren was once a mover and a shaker. Things here are tossed in the air with the dexterity of a seasoned juggler.
Field Studies shows the strain of too many side projects and too much ambition: Quasi wrote and recorded 46 songs over an 18-month period (only 14 are included here). The writing is not fully fleshed out; the lyrics hector rather than meditate. The negotiated peace between Coomes and his world makes his singing more fluid; by now it’s clear that Quasi is not really part of any scene: the immense domain of musical influences in the band’s work is too stretched over time and place. Echoes of Jon Brion’s craftsmanship, the Zombies’ beautiful melodies, Sparklehorse’s guitars and Modest Mouse’s sonic arrangements inform this work but the sound is Quasi. The most thoughtful album in Quasi’s canon.
Right around the same time as the disappointing Sword of God, Touch and Go re-released Early Recordings, a poppier, less-experimental Quasi from as far back as 1994. Although Coomes’s savage satire is on full display, the songs feel like a convalescent restored to health. What’s missing are bracing tonics of instinctual mistrust of later Quasi and the songs themselves are more or less truncated ideas. The Sword of God, however, has neither harried lives nor immature descriptions to explain away its enfeebled stasis. There is no shortage of derision or frustration or censure here, from the liner notes (a rant about shoddy journalism, an ape and betrayal of trust) to the venomous songs: “Fuck Hollywood,” “Better Luck Next Time” and “From a Hole in the Ground” all suggest the unconventional tenor of the proceedings. Quasi is here choking on fakes, genteel society and aimless politicians. The musical peregrinations are able enough, but the singing is strident; the lyrics embittered; the enemies too easily chosen. Where it formerly danced and cried, the music here squawks.
Hot Shit! is not. It starts adroitly with the sinister title song and its bellicose interplay between the two singers. Few bands can so deftly and humorously conjure such fertile and unexpected juxtapositions as Quasi: clichés, children’s games, Ahab’s monomania and futile Christian hope, all with the underpinning of non-MOR grinding, circular conditions. Coomes’ voice is more desperate here, a strangled cry that often is both lovely and painful to hear. On the whole, however, the album is a disappointment: there’s much intelligence and, jeez, will they ever run out of ingenious snippets and partial hooks?, but nothing congeals, there is little systematic answering for the many refusals mentioned.
I doubt there is a fiercer iconoclast in music in American pop over the past decade. Uncompromising, wallowing in the disappointment that befalls most artists with obdurate agendas, and bravely struggling to stay afloat, metaphysically if not financially, Quasi is one of a kind. On Hot Shit!, they sound impatient. As Ahab showed, the victory is in the interminable defeat, not the final score.