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Fighting the fight with Quasi

‘We play rock with an asterisk,’ asserts Sam Coomes, frontman to the Portland, Oregon duo Quasi.  Follow the asterisk and you’ll find eastern-tinged modal blues, rollicking piano, jumpy guitar, and spaced out Syd Barrett lunacy.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

“We play rock with an asterisk,” asserts Sam Coomes, frontman to the Portland, Oregon duo Quasi.  Follow the asterisk and you’ll find eastern-tinged modal blues, rollicking piano, jumpy guitar, and spaced out Syd Barrett lunacy, all given special attention by Flaming Lips and Sleater-Kinney producer Dave Fridmann.

It's no surprise that Coomes was a long-time bandmate and friend of the late Elliott Smith.  They shared a bittersweet musical sense of the world that straddles darkness and hope.  But Coomes is now shedding the brooding existentialism to venture into more optimistic territory.  Three years after the bitter political screeds of their previous album, Quasi offers their seventh full release, “When the Going Gets Dark.”  Fight the fight, do right by yourself, keep your eyes open and everything will be okay, says Coomes.  The going may still be dark, but it’s a darkness you can transcend. 

The other half of Quasi is drummer Janet Weiss.  She is also a third of the punk trio Sleater-Kinney, as well as Sam’s ex-wife.  “We’ve been through a lot, and our friendship is more valuable because of it.  We’re like family,” Janet says.  “We know how to play well together,” Sam adds.  “We can go out on a limb because we have that rapport.”  Their penchant for live experimentation and rough-hewn improvisation has won them many fans.  It has also kept them barely above ground, a situation Sam says he is comfortable with, much like the mole rummaging around on the cover of their 1999 release “Field Studies.” 

Quasi albums are usually wry, melancholic affairs, unabashedly political at times.  They seem to have digested that political rancor, which appears only subtly here.  The struggles Sam writes about now are personal.  “This is a more hopeful record,” Sam told me, “less self-absorbed, more outward looking.”  It also feels very loose in places with, surprisingly, a piano leading the charge.  From the opening “Foxy Lady”-like piano riff bombast of “Alice the Goon,” or the rampaging rhinoceros on the keys with “The Rhino,” Quasi lets loose.

Janet’s drumming with Quasi is different than her beat keeping in Sleater-Kinney.  Having only the two of them in Quasi makes it easier to take chances, she says.  Sam pens most of the music and lyrics.  “I try to figure out what the song is at the core, and communicate Sam’s cacophony ... Our music is on the edge and could fall apart at any minute.  I gravitate toward less than perfect sounding music.  Life is scraggly and unpredictable and we try to capture that in Quasi.” 

Don’t get the idea that Janet is a sloppy player.  She is an accomplished drummer who knows what she’s doing, playing circles around the beat to keep it interesting.  Likewise Sam, who conjures a variety of guitar sounds.  George Harrison-esque slide guitar leads the title track.  On hearing the opening riffs to “Death Culture Blues” I swear Sam could be a Tom Waits’ side man, and the off-kilter instrumental “Presto Change-O” could easily fit on the late-70s San Francisco bizarro Ralph Records label.  “It’s a complicated stew,” agrees Sam.  “I pull out whatever I feel at the moment.”

They sometimes dip into the same lysergic backwaters that Pink Floyd plied in their early days.  The album’s trippy middle suite begins with “Peace and Love,” espousing simplicity over euphemism:  “Peace and love ain’t no pose / Not just some song you sing at shows,” sings Sam.  “It’s about being direct and not mincing words,” he explains.  This segues directly into the achingly beautiful, transcendent “Beyond the Sky,” an intimate duet sung over a wash of keyboards before dissolving into plangent, stratospheric psychedelia.  They begin re-entry with the bit-decimated instrumental “Presto Change-O,” and crash land in familiar Led Zeppelin territory with “Poverty Sucks.”

They finish the album with a lullaby of sorts “Invisible Star,” singing softly in unison before Sam slips in a thick as molasses guitar solo that blasts off again into space.  I suppose if this star is invisible, it means that the going is once again dark.  But now we know what to do.

“When the Going Gets Dark” is available March 21 on Touch and Go Records.

For more information on Quasi, visit: http://www.theequasi.com/.