Quasi can play with your ears. Sam Coomes has a ’70s electric keyboard that he says he bought for $50; it’s called a Roxichord, short for rocking harpsichord, and he’s wont to rub his body all over it. Makes it dance with an unpredictable veer, creating an organ-grinder version of the “What’d I Say” jam. Wrapped inside those Pan pipes, a rock covered by paper, is Janet Weiss: showy drum rolls, breaks, waltzes and oompah, surge-aheads, stop! This band woozes around like whiskey out the flask with cotton-candy chasers–grab flesh to stay standing. Then Coomes imposes his reedy, thin, high-to-falsetto philosophizing on the proceedings, insisting his melancholy be invited to the party. That detached verbosity has a timbre of its own. Quasi can play with your mind.
A decade back, he led the Bay Area’s Donner Party, who put out two albums, one on Camper Van Beethoven’s label with homey punk sounds and lyrics about getting lost in Hoboken and life’s little ups and downs. He was morbid even then: the other album has a song called “When You Die Your Eyes Pop Out.” Next we know, he’s in Portland married to Weiss, these days Sleater-Kinney’s drummer. For all the talk about rock domesticity–Kim and Thurston, Ira and Georgia–Coomes and Weiss are from an equally rich tradition where leaving the bed doesn’t mean breaking up the band. Think Jon Langford and Sally Timms. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. Savor the tension. There’s a lumpy self-released CD, Early Recordings, documenting Quasi’s conjugal demos. Divorce in ’95 focused Coomes, both musically–after this band and Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele, the harpsichord is the official instrument of romantic revenge–and lyrically. Weiss drives home his barbs, even when they’re aimed at her: “I Never Want To See You Again,” “The Poisoned Well,” “Nothing From Nothing.”
Maybe she’s indulgent because the dammit-Janet sequences are just part of the general misanthropy, like Coomes’s own jocularly suicidal self-loathing, or because they’re such quality barbs, honed to read off the page, the same way Coomes takes care “beveling the edges” of, uh huh, “My Coffin.” He can outdo Stephin Merritt for dark chuckles: “Life is dull life is gray;/At its best it’s just OK./But I’m happy to report/Life is also short.” Only then he can rejoin the world; the same song continues “So I find myself back in California/I’m a coolie for the tourists,/those happy Epicureans:/Evil spectres from my own suburban upbringing.” (Who else punctuates their lyrics in such detail?) Only then he can just as precisely invent his own biosphere: the new album’s opening cut starts off “Orbiting pods, underwater domes/We fill our tanks with oxygen to step outside our homes./Once it was hard, now it’s just routine/And I can’t tell the difference between people and machine.” Who else writes parallel nonrhyming lines that scan metrically?
Coomes is a man who’s found room to indulge his compulsions: Featuring “Birds” is the third Quasi album with a birds track and he’s equally preoccupied with boats and robots. Indeed, despite his recent preoccupation with the “prole” theme, there’s a reason why Quasi, along with, let’s see, Built To Spill, Modest Mouse, Sleater-Kinney, Silkworm, Harvey Danger (whose “Flagpole Sitta” is the modern-rock oasis of the season), and throw in the Fastbacks, all contribute to what the Young Fresh Fellows once called the Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest. It may be the only part of America left where bohemian failure remains kind of romantic–fun, even, like the consequent grumbling. And this is reflected in the indie-trad rock and roll it seems to be the only part of America left producing, let alone revitalizing. Absolute mastery isn’t required here–the way Sonic Youth, Pavement, or Yo La Tengo have had to push themselves in the confines of New York. Just unique individuals with musicality and free time rubbing sticks together.
That doesn’t always lead to songs, of course, though organic musical interplay, writerly prose, and intriguing personalities can make a hell of a substitute. Quasi’s previous album, R&B Transmogrification, written in the full flush of grief and despair, folded no standards-in-the-making into its obsessively restated themes. Featuring “Birds” hungers more in that direction, achieving one classic, “It’s Hard To Turn Me On” (as in “You turn me on and…”), the finest indie ode to love–that’s indie love, meaning an emotional laxative–since Chris Knox’s “Not Given Lightly.” Dedicated cranks that they remain, Coomes and Weiss chose not to perform it when they rolled into Under Acme last Friday, part of a national tour (the two of them alone in a van?) that includes some dates backing their buddy Elliott Smith.
But the omission hardly mattered. We were there to see them cohabit, and the revelation was that most of the voyeurism felt musical, not personal. Alone onstage, without the overdubs that finish out the albums, they shadow-fucked eight to the bar, Coomes scrunching to remember the weird chords he’d designed, celebrating by butt jamming on his long-suffering Roxi, picking up his Fender for a three-song stretch, as Weiss played with a jazzy liberality Sleater-Kinney can’t permit her, smiling more at the musical digressions she and Coomes were taking than at his tortured ad infinitums. Free to be you and me.
Quasi plays June 13 at Brownies.