For those of us who have let Quasi slip completely by us during their nearly two decades of operation, American Gong is a hell of a place to start. The latest from the Portland perennials does not sound like the work of a band easing comfortably into middle-aged status. On American Gong, Quasi sound both powerful and oddly joyful, though this isn’t to say that the band is simply impressively spirited for their age. Notable as their energy may be, it’s reductive to say that the band is unusually spirited for a well-established band. This is the type of album that would rightfully gain an up-and-coming band some serious attention.
Perhaps it’s attributable to the fact that drummer Janet Weiss no longer has Sleater-Kinney to supply her with therapeutic opportunities to pound out her frustrations (and it’s hard to imagine that joining Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks provides as much release as Sleater Kinney). Then again, lead singer/guitarist Sam Coomes sounds more than ready to match Weiss’ boundless enthusiasm and insane fills with bouts of chaotic guitar and amusingly snotty vocals. Coomes has said that the addition of Jicks bassist Joanna Bolme allowed him the space to get more adventurous with his guitar-playing on American Gong. The resulting album goes a long way to backing up that claim.
In fact, Quasi’s evident enjoyment of their work goes far enough to take otherwise weak songs and push them into exciting places. When you strip away the filler from the over six-minute “Bye Bye Blackbird”, what you’re left with is a simple alternative pop song, one that stays predictably true to that genre’s quite-loud dynamics. But the filler, ironically, is such an important part of the song. After quickly establishing a verse and a chorus, the song descends into a gleefully anarchic mess. Weiss and Coomes hammer away at their gear angrily, and Bolme uses the opportunity to veer her instrument throughout the knotty waves of distortion and rumbling toms. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Quasi had gotten carried away onto a new song, but then the melodic hook returns abruptly. It’s a jarring return to earth, and actually kind of funny.
The fact that Quasi can choose to dwell in long passages of exploratory jamming without getting bogged down in masturbatory noodling says a lot about the band’s instincts and musicianship. Occasionally, American Gong’s technical skill filtered through alternative-rock reminds the listener of Built to Spill, for reasons aside from Coomes vocal similarities to Doug Marstch. “Black Dogs & Bubbles” switches between a dark southern-rock bounce and stretches of gothic moodiness, and the consistent dynamic shifts are expertly designed, keeping the listener absorbed all the way through.
But Quasi are not all mood-shifts and improvisatory noisiness. Sometimes they want to just kick the shit out of a good rock ‘n roll song, as simple and ridiculous as that sounds, and this is where they truly excel. It’s unlikely that you’ll hear a screaming, shit-kicking guitar-jam as good as “Rockabilly Party” this year, and I say that optimistically. The classic guy-girl harmonies and goofy song-ending punctuation notes would be highlights in other, lesser songs, but these choices are merely bonuses here. And no review of American Gong would be complete without a mention of the frenzied pop of “Little White Horse”, replete as it is with fuzz and inexplicable streaks of high-pitched beeps. Rest assured, no band is having as much fun as Quasi these days. The contact high comes highly recommended though.