Good Times and Guitars
Quasi’s world is filled with dread, failure, fear, and romantic disappointment. However, a visit to one of the band’s shows would reveal them to be a masterful, noisy pop band, not suicide-inducing miserablists. In part, this is due to the band’s virtuosity: Singer Sam Coomes is a whiz on guitar and his overdriven, electric harpsichord; Janet Weiss, both in Quasi and Sleater-Kinney, has proven herself to be one of the most exciting drummers playing today. But the strange uplift of Quasi’s music comes, largely, as a result of Coomes’ dryly humorous dissection of life’s miseries. The bleak push and pull of codependency, soulless day jobs, and existential loneliness are recurrent themes in Quasi’s songs, but they are consistently delivered with real wit, insight, and hummable melodies.
It’s an old trick: happy music, sad words. But Quasi has elevated the strategy to an art form, and it’s nearly impossible to resist the sugar rush of the band’s sound in collision with Coomes’ black musings. However, in the group’s early days, they were as well-known for the gimmick of their set-up as they were for their music. Coomes and Weiss’ history as a married couple was often taken a bit too literally by critics and obsessive fans, who presumed that Coomes’ acid take on relationships was directed at Weiss. In hindsight, however, Quasi’s music made such an impression because it was miles away from the sad-sack whimpering of most indie rockers, content to pee their beds and pine for old girlfriends who never liked them much in the first place. Quasi, by contrast, had the ability to not only make you tap your feet but think as well, sometimes about rather uncomfortable subjects.
What makes this unusual is that music, even very good music, often acts as something of a narcotic, a warm, pleasant buzz that envelops the listener and lessens the weight of their own problems and failings. Sad, romantic music makes us feel like our pain is okay, even beautiful. In a Quasi song, the same emotion would be interpreted as pathetic and self-indulgent, an inescapable weakness. Despite the music’s success on simple pop terms, it was these more difficult notions that really made the songs linger. Like all musical strategies, however, what feels fresh at first can easily become stale. Quasi threatened to turn formulaic on later albums, especially on their most recent, The Sword of God. The band were still capable of brilliant songs, but other moments felt like retreads, a dependence on established structures. This was especially true of Coomes reliance on a rather detached vocal style, deadpanning his way through unending hurt and confusion. Could the band do a “happy” song? A song that didn’t sound simply like another Quasi song? The answer, provided on Hot Shit, is an emphatic yes.
The band has gone through a radical reworking of both its sound and approach, most notably in Coomes almost total focus on guitar and piano, rather than his trademark “roxichord”. Instead of crunching distortion and pounding keyboard vamps, there are layers of oberdubbed, squirrely guitar, electronic swirls, and lonely, haunted piano. Coomes and Weiss also wisely chose to produce the album themselves, opting for a messy, live sound that captures the energetic spontaneity of their shows. The album sounds beautiful, but truly raw. Coomes’ vocals are much more direct and emotionally engaged than on previous records, and every song feels like a first take.
Infecting the album is a nervy sense of dread, often explicitly linked to the current state of American politics. A few songs were even recorded during the Iraq war, such as “White Devils”, which excoriates the pervasive culture of greed in American society. It even has a free-form coda where Coomes simply tells the whole Bush/Rumsfeld/Ashcroft cadre to fuck themselves. Subtle, it’s not, but in a American media culture where even doubt is perceived to be treasonous, it’s refreshing to simply hear a passionate and direct attack.
Many of the songs on the album seem to suggest that at the moment, apathy, either personal or political, is unacceptable. Even “Good Times”, which treads on the familiar territory of suffocating relationships, refuses to treat the subject with shrugged shoulders. Instead, it details the situation’s failings and points to “Good times/ and happy days/ in spite of it all”, before closing with an inspired guitar solo. It’s the only song on the album with the roxichord, which is paired with Weiss’ truly stunning beats. The result is a rather moving, powerfully rocking song about a very human failing.
If Quasi’s message on previous albums was “life sucks”, then the message on Hot Shit would be “Life sucks, but you don’t have to take it lying down.” A small change, but one that means everything. Quasi feel freshly engaged, and the result is often tremendously exciting, their most vital recording since Featuring “Birds”. There’s even a song called “Good Time Rock n’ Roll”, which is, amazingly, about the redemptive powers of rock music, despite its empty promises. So, while this may qualify as Quasi’s “happy” album, there are still moments of soul-scouring introspection, upbeat “pop” songs that stare into the abyss. On Hot Shit, however, these examinations feel like part of a process, a step towards greater understanding. For many bands, the “sad” aspects of existence are simply clichéd touchstones, received ideas about what a song should be about. But by producing uplifting music that refuses to ignore the shittier parts of life, Quasi is able to find real moments of joy, despite everything that stands in the way.
By Jason Dungan