Having refined their classic sound to the point that, as demonstrated on 2006’s When the Going Gets Dark, they were able to construct successful pop songs out of its murkiest corners, Quasi had worked themselves into an enviable position where a change in course would not only be accepted by their fans, but would be expected. One surprise, though, on the group’s new release American Gong, is that the changes – significant as they are – don’t seem to signal a new direction for Quasi but seem to have been acquired on a temporary basis on order to reinforce particular lyrical themes.
The group’s recent New Year’s Eve performance as The Who (QRO review) suggested a potential direction for the upcoming record and, instrumentally, American Gong follows faithfully on that lead. In their new trio formation – the core duo of Sam Coomes (QRO interview) and Janet Weiss having been permanently augmented by former touring bassist Joanna Bolme (ladies both also of Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – QRO live review) – the group stomps through ten classic-rock-influenced tracks, led for the most part by Coomes’ caterwauling guitar.
While on “Laissez les Bon Temps Rouller”, Coomes is simply requesting, en François, that we let the good times roll, the phonetic suggestion of a roulette wheel suits the record well. To hear only the first few seconds of each track, a young listener would be forgiven for thinking that they were hearing their dad’s iPod on shuffle.
When Coomes’ voice and lyrics enter the songs, though, it becomes apparent that despite the near-absence of keyboards in the record’s first half, American Gong is a Quasi record. Although the familiar riffs are delivered in a fairly straightforward manner, they take on new life, ironically, when overlaid by Coomes’ meditations on aging and death.
Although Coomes’ liberal use of cliché may point to the origin of these songs in basement jams, they also allow him to challenge some received ideas about the arc of life. “If its not too loud,” he sings, “then you’re not too old.” While this bit of reassurance is spiked by a bitter note suggesting a speaker too savvy to be swayed by his own wishful thinking, the repetition of the idea throughout the album suggests that Coomes finds a certain beauty and power in the sentiment.
In Coomes’ last lyric before a moment of canine howling closes out the album, he points out “the receding taillights of a teenage dream” over a pitch-perfect evocation of Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd. While American Gong may not point to the future of Quasi, it illuminates the past in a way that feels entirely fresh and, coming from a band that has barely wavered in relevance over their sixteen-year career, feels strangely like a comeback.