Breaking the Balls of History (Quasi) – music review

It appears to have taken a global pandemic to get power duo Quasi back into the studio 10 years after their last release. Surrounded by numerous end-of-the-world scenarios with no touring happening, it seemed the perfect time for the combined talents of Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss to put their unique stamp on a dozen tracks full of sardonic wit in the duo’s brand of power pop meets grungy punk rants as the blend of potent drumming and a lush variety of keyboard excursions come together to get the job done.

Of course, Weiss was the oft-praised drummer in Sleater-Kinney for a decade before the band went on hiatus, and another 5 years after they regrouped. She also played stints with Steve Malkmus and the Jicks, and Wild Flag, and sat in with Bright Eyes and others. Coomes plays a “rocksichord,” evidently a flexible keyboard combining organ and synths to make the necessary major raucous racket, as well as bass and guitars as needed. He contributed to albums with Elliott Smith, which led to Quasi supporting and playing with Smith on tour, and he also contributed to albums by Built to Spill and The Go-Betweens. Both sing, but often Coomes takes the lead, while Weiss add harmonies, lots of timely “oohs” and “aahs,” and occasionally, like on the floating, airy, “Inbetweeness” she takes the lead.

Here on their tenth album, after a decade hiatus, they open with the declaration that “I was teenage porcupine, a bed of nails running down my spine,” before the drums kick in and Coomes’ keyboard grinds out a driving distorted mélange of sound, as they celebrate the “Last Long Laugh” in the “face of death.” It’s as if they want to announce from the start, that even though destruction is inevitable, there’s little reason to take it all too seriously, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t have fun before things come entirely apart. In “Doomscrollers” they describe what these last few years have felt like: “All the kids in their virtual classes/stuck at home sitting on their asses/and all the houses lost to virus, the anti-vaxxers, and the climate deniers,” a tale of people “trying to stay alive, or at least not die.”

What makes Quasi’s music so enjoyable is that even when they are diving into the predictable punchy pop of “Shitty Is Pretty,” they bring a joyful esprit d’ corps to the venture, as well as clever lyrics and a vigorous determination in Weiss’ boisterous drumming that pulls the listener along. Even on “Riots & Jokes,” which sounds like a demented roller-rink organ haunted by a would-be “Phantom of the Opera” they make you want to strap on skates and try to keep up.

The one-minute rant that is the album’s title track, finds Coomes’ keyboard run through a grungy distortion pedal left over from the 90’s, but what more do you need when you’re “Breaking the Balls of History.” By the final tracks, “Rotten Wrock” and “The Losers Win,” you can hear the wheels are about to come off the wagon, because “everybody knows it ain’t no game/and now it’s never gonna be the same,” and the keyboard’s notes seem to echo the harsh tones of a world at odds with itself. But, before you get there, if the choice is between whether to “rest in power or rest in peace,” you could do a lot worse than the rocking dance beat of “Nowheresville,” or singing along with the “Queen of Ears,” or defying “Gravity.”

Part of the redemptive power of rock & roll is that it doesn’t just shake its fist at the insanity and absurdity of life, it laughs at the paradoxes while kicking up a beat to keep the party going while the apocalypse breaks loose on the horizon. You might wonder what band will be playing when the modern social order’s “Titanic” begins to sink, but Quasi has shown us here that they are up to the task.

Brian Q. Newcomb
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