Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Quasi: American Gong

Written by Zachary Martin
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I can’t say that Quasi has been on my radar a lot over the past seventeen years. However, they have been making records, and they are one of the few “side project” bands out there that continues to come around, and the results are never bad. Officially forming in 1993 as a duo consisting of husband and wife Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss, Quasi has been making records almost every year since—an impressive feat considering that the band has outlived both a marriage and Coomes and Weiss’s other projects (Coomes has been in Built to Spill, among other acts, and Weiss was in the seminal girl punk trio Sleater-Kinney). While most mortals might think there is more to life than indie rock, Coomes and Weiss thankfully don’t. In 2006 Quasi added veteran indie rocker Joanna Bolme (formally of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks) to the mix and in 2009 signed on to venerable indie rock label Kill Rock Stars. 

I can’t say that Quasi has been on my radar a lot over the past seventeen years. However, they have been making records, and they are one of the few “side project” bands out there that continues to come around, and the results are never bad. Officially forming in 1993 as a duo consisting of husband and wife Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss, Quasi has been making records almost every year since—an impressive feat considering that the band has outlived both a marriage and Coomes and Weiss’s other projects (Coomes has been in Built to Spill, among other acts, and Weiss was in the seminal girl punk trio Sleater-Kinney). While most mortals might think there is more to life than indie rock, Coomes and Weiss thankfully don’t. In 2006 Quasi added veteran indie rocker Joanna Bolme (formally of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks) to the mix and in 2009 signed on to venerable indie rock label Kill Rock Stars.

All this alone might make a pretty good album, but in fact there is lot more to American Gong, and Quasi overall, than really loud music from established artists. While a lot of bands with similar pedigrees would be happy to rest on their laurels, Quasi doesn’t seem to have any such intentions and wastes no time attacking the listener with every trick in the book of rock. And underneath all the power chords are a number of ambitious well-crafted songs. In fact, the only song that really counts as a straight-ahead rock number is Repulsion.” From the syncopated grooves of “Little White Horse” to the Wilcoesque alt-country of “Rockabilly Party to the wall of sound jam that is “Bye Bye Black Bird,” American Gong blends and weaves a complex field of styles together to produce what can only be described as a grab bag of rock goodies. It’s ultimately this eclectic mix of sounds that makes American Gong work as an album. Where most power trios are limited to just playing loud, Coomes, Weiss, and Bolme have found a way to keep the listeners’ attentions by mixing up instrumentation and changing styles.

Though Quasi has won me over with much of their repertoire, I do think that Sam Coomes’ lyrics are their Achilles’ heel. Lyrical content can be a point of debate for rock lovers. Some, and among them I count the most elite rock snobs, could care less about what the lead singer is saying, while others can’t tolerate lyrics that are just the handmaid to music. I fall somewhere in the middle. I would like lyrics to be part of the package, but not everyone can be Kristin Hersh. When Coomes sings on “Little White Horse,” “If it’s not too loud than you’re not too old/trust in your bluff and you’ might never have to fold,” I’m satisfied that the line between earnest punk “meaning” and indie irony is being walked by a capable songsmith. I don’t however understand how the same adult person can sing: “I’ve got no time to drop LSD/I guess I still have time for DMT . . . ” and “I didn’t mean to make you snore/ I went out and got a whore.” It’s lines like these that make me wonder what Portland public restroom Coomes found them in and if the author is going to receive any royalties. However, leaving aside the sound of apathy (a popular technique of the 1990s songwriting I would prefer be left behind) there is plenty to hold the listeners’ attention past these moments.

For some, this album may be too much to handle, but if you don’t like rock music you probably aren’t reading this review anymore. American Gong is, in its entirety, a ferocious sonic assault of rock grooves that will make you proud to be whatever it is you’re proud to be. I for one think that an album like this is long overdue, and if there was any justice left in the world, rock stations would still play new music, and Quasi would have their first hit with “Repulsion.” However, this being the digital age, finding good music is not as hard as it once was and perhaps now Quasi won’t be considered a side project band anymore.

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