Review Summary: Quasi decorates bitter melancholy with catchy pop hooks and warm melodies in this overlooked indie rock jewel from an underrated band.
Forget New Year’s resolutions, forget self-improvement, forget about “getting out there”. If your stuck in the doldrums of existence, it can often be so much easier to let time pass you by and just accept the futility of the world and life itself. After all, aren’t we all just dust in the wind? Portland indie rockers Quasi seem to think so, but that’s nothing to get down about. The band could have found an outlet for their persistent pessimism in self-hating grunge or tearful emo. Instead, thankfully, Sam Coomes and ex-wife Janet Weiss prefer to wrap the shortcomings of life in sweet pop melodies and witty dark humor on 1998’s sorely underappreciated Featuring “Birds”
The strong pop sensibilities of the group are perhaps a byproduct of years of rubbing shoulders with the legendary Elliott Smith, with whom the band toured, collaborated in the studio, and at a time, shared a band (Coomes and Smith in Heatmiser). But while Smith’s brand of pop barely concealed the thoughts of a troubled mind, Quasi’s “*** happens” outlook on life makes for a much cheerier, if still bitter, message and album experience.
The album appropriately kicks off with “Our Happiness is Guaranteed,” which drops listeners into a chaotic pit of Coomes’ distinctive keyboards, Weiss’s drum slamming, and loud guitar fuzz before the main pop melody arises. Coomes’s light and clear voice is as pleasing and likable as is needed to take on the Quasi’s sardonic subject matter. His electronic keyboard is another powerful component of Quasi’s sound, contributing to the innocence of the melodies and their interesting contrasts to the lyrics.
Despite packing most of their tuneful pop jams into songs below the 3-minute mark, the band still finds time for wordless instrumental experimentation and ambiance building. “Nothing From Nothing” builds anticipation on a lengthy and energetic drum-led introduction (well, it’s 2/3 of the song, but still a great listen). “I Give Up” features bouts of rompy keyboard and crazed drumming before letting Coomes’ get a word in. The band even sets aside almost a minute and a half of simply birds chirping on “Birds,” the album’s self-proclaimed centerpiece (get it?).
As is clearly evident, the lyrical nature of Featuring “Birds”
is darkly humorous and full of wisecracks and sighs on despair, hopelessness, and boredom. Summing up these notions, on “California” Coomes laments “Life is dull, life is gray / At its best it’s just ok / But I’m happy to report / Life is also short.” While Coomes smartly puts such downer musings into witty matter-of-fact phrasing, the pure pop intentions of the melodies and energetic instrumentation make the message work in consistently interesting, fun, and unique ways. And beyond being fun, the album is certainly funny (“Walt Disney cannot make me happy” Coomes moans on the mesmerizing “It’s Hard to Turn Me On”).
Considering the album’s plethora of solid pop gems, it’s difficult to pick favorites, as they are almost all designed for eager replay, if not a sing-along. Highlights surely include the sunny tempo pickup of “The Poisoned Well,” the utterly fantastic, rocking guitar riff of “Ape Self Prevails in Me Still,” and the delicate Elliott Smith-brand folk number “Please Do,” whose closer is probably the album’s most lyrically heartfelt, and heartbreaking, moment. Not to be forgotten are the vocal contributions of Weiss, who, in addition to acing the drums, sings the haunting “Tomorrow You’ll Hide” and provides sweet backing vocals, as on the drawn out howl of “Repetition.” Finally, the wordless concluding song “Only Success Can Fail Me Now” is, as the album’s final statement, a beautiful and lush piece of acoustic guitar strumming and a building-up drum beat that is a testament to Coomes and Weiss’s chemistry together (musical chemistry, that is) and a pleasantly optimistic sounding end to the album.
Armed with a knack for warm melodies and a biting humor, Quasi’s broadly accessible indie pop makes for an ironically fun celebration of the downers in life. In the end, perhaps Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss have been looking on the bright side all along (Coomes encourages us to “Smile, it’s not so bad” on 1999’s Field Studies
, but that’s another issue). So, on the other hand, the good advice is to go out and actively enjoy life. Sure you’ll feel down sometimes, and sure you’ll want to, temporarily at least, just mire in your own dissatisfaction with life for awhile. At least now, when you do, you’ll know the perfect album to listen to.