Release Date: Feb 23, 2010
Record label: Kill Rock Stars
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
It’s funny how every article concerning Quasi always begins with a sentence involving the words ‘side project’ – including this one it would appear – when they’ve now outstayed the bands the primary musicians were in (Heatmiser and Sleater-Kinney). Perhaps it’s because they’re a hard band to categorise, with each subsequent release trying something new. Indeed, if one criticism could be made of the band's output in recent years, it’d be that it shoots off in so many tangents that it’s hard to view the records as complete works; you sense there’s a stupendous Best Of lurking in amongst the innards just waiting to be plucked, but that - like The Fiery Furnaces - sometimes the breadth of ideas and stylistic variation slightly smother the songs lurking underneath.
Although Quasi often seems forgotten about until it releases a new album, the duo -- Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss -- has been playing together for over 16 years. Outlasting many of Coomes's and Weiss's higher-profile projects (Sleater-Kinney, Heatmiser), Quasi has released a distinct if uneven series of albums since coming to notice in the late 1990s. After abandoning the lo-fi pop style and distinctive rocksichord sound the group perfected on the classic Featuring “Birds” (1998), the two spent most of the '00s mining tepid guitar rock that lacked the songwriting chops of their early records (The Sword of God, in 2001) or failing to marry Coomes's bluesy aspirations with topical political commentary (2003's career low Hot Shit!).
For a band with such an illustrious pedigree Quasi have strangely remained a niche act: Its primary members are Heatmiser's Sam Coomes and Sleater-Kinney and the Jicks' Janet Weiss, and it released records on Touch and Go and Kill Rock Stars. Perhaps that's due to other band commitments; perhaps because Quasi rarely perform outside of the band's Portland hometown. (Though they are about to embark upon a fairly extensive tour in support of this new effort.) Or perhaps it's because Quasi's lyrical content-- from the overt politics of Hot Shit to the silly-yet-obtuse children's poems of When the Going Gets Dark-- can be too arch for some.
Changes are afoot on Quasi's seventh album, American Gong. First off is the addition of Joanna Bolme on bass and vocals, but more important is the change in their sound. Up until this, the group was mostly built around keyboards and drums, with the vocals of Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss intertwining over the top. As American Gong opens with the songs "Repulsion" and "Little White Horse," the sound of the band is a swirling mess of overloaded guitars, keys, bass, drums, and voices rushing by on a wave of fiery noise that’s both invigorating and impressively fresh for a band that's been around for so long.
Let’s pretend that this review is about me for a moment. I never got into Quasi. Despite their collective indie rock royalty status (Heatmiser, Sleater-Kinney, The Jicks, etc.) and their penchant for the psychedelic and kaleidoscopic, I just never bothered. I’m not even sure what turned me off, but I do have a tendency to root for the underdog.
Do you ever look at bands that everyone else is so enraptured by and wonder, “What the hell are they seeing that I’m not?” Of course you have; all of us who’ve dipped our toes into the Lethe waters of Indie have experienced such moments. I for one will admit that when I first heard Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West in 2002 or so, it didn’t do much for the person I was at the time. But a few years later, at the start of my college career, I returned to Lonesome Crowded and it hit me like a proverbial ton of bricks.
Some musicians like to keep things fresh with revolving doors and various memberships in several bands. A few stellar ones have their main band, their solo gig and a few side-projects spinning on the side. And most of the time, they take a steady amount of time off from other projects to focus on one primary one – even if it is temporarily. Well, what about Quasi, a band that for the longest time was solely made up of singer/musician Sam Coomes and drummer Janet Weiss? Their discography is wide-ranging but they usually don’t venture very far out in terms of tours, publicity or even, developing new sounds.
Quasi's eighth studio album sees the permanent addition of touring bassist Joanna Bolme from the Jicks. The result is a bigger sound from the Portland, Ore. , lo-fi indie rockers, and the best evidence of this bulked-up aesthetic is epic "Bye Bye Blackbird.