[First Published at End Hits, Jan 6, 2014]
[A dispatch from former Mercury writer/Quasi fan/English person Alex Robert Ross, who lives in Norwich, which he describes as “a one horse town and the horse has bolted.” On their recent UK tour, Quasi played there. Needless to say, Alex was excited.]
Oh hey Portland, how’s it going? Winter weather, I hear you say? Well, this is winter in Norwich, England. It’s like living in a Dickens novel about a very cold cloud.
Some solace, though: When Quasi announced their UK tour over the summer, they didn’t skip Norwich. Everyone skips Norwich—presumably terrified by the town’s intimidating signs [above] and perpetual state of disaster. Not Quasi. Hibernation cancelled.
When I wrote about meeting Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes for End Hits last year, I’d sheepishly asked them to sign my copy of American Gong before quickly running away like a schoolkid to play it over and over again. They were, I said, everything great about indie rock: passionate yet self-effacing, intelligent yet understated, sincere and sarcastic all at once, propelled by a unique and gifted songwriter and grounded by one of the greatest drummers of all time. And all this came before the release of Mole City, the band’s eighth album in a career that now spans 20 years.
Much like its creators, it’s record that deserves more attention than it’s received. Double albums, the common smoke signal from the artist over the hill, tend to inspire little more than abject terror in fans and critics. Other than a few notable exceptions, the format lends itself to dilution and stagnation, watering down what might be a fine idea to an overblown ramble like a drunk who just read a good novel.
On Mole City, though, Quasi achieve the near impossible with what appears on the surface to be absolutely no effort at all. From the moment that Coomes’ vocals emerge crackling from the Big, Muffled opening riff of “You Can Stay But You Gotta Go,” to the dissonant and broken bliss of “New Western Way,” the duo remain lazily essential. Melodramatic hallucinations fall into icy clarity with Coomes stumbling from image to image in an attempt to find something absolute. IfAmerican Gong was Quasi’s dystopia, Mole City is their pitch for a better place.
Sparsely populated nights at the Norwich Arts Centre are a distinctly odd experience at the best of times. A 15th-century church in the middle of what feels like a ghost town past sundown on a weeknight; there’s a creepy charm to the place. With Quasi headlining it feels stranger still. The venue’s not half full when Coomes and Weiss take to the stage with the lights still mostly up, and those gathered toward the back of the venue are scared to move forward for fear of eye contact with the band.
It’s clear, though, that the duo is relieved to be here. The previous night, supporting Kurt Vile in London in front of 2,000 people, their equipment failed and their set fell apart. At this point, of course, Quasi have nothing to lose. Two decades in, with other projects running simultaneously, they’re acutely aware that their act works better in an intimate setting, the creepier the better. Those hallucinations can really come to life.
And so it is. Coomes nods to the crowd from his Roxichord and Weiss smiles wryly at her kit before crashing into “See You on Mars,” the closest thing to a three-minute rock opera that an indie band will ever come up with. Weiss uses her sticks like weapons, syncopating Coomes’ innocent melodies and giving his voice space to roam. Somewhere between his cry that “Everybody’s lost their head” and his wondering, “Why should I care,” Quasi’s contradictory nature is laid bare.
“Our Happiness Is Guaranteed” and “I Never Want to See You Again,” standouts from 1998’sFeaturing Birds, fall in line with Mole City’s fuzz-driven moments perfectly. The energy’s there too: the nonchalant lullaby of “Chumps of Chance” is the band’s only pause for breath amongst the sprawl. And when Coomes switches keys for guitar, there’s another change of gear. “Double Deuce” does away with lethargy in favour of speed only for “Bedbug Town” to lay the charm back on.
I spend much of the evening gawping at the band. When I’m not doing that, I’m nudging my friend to let him know I told him they’d be great. Both of these facts are somewhat pathetic.
But both are entirely justified. Quasi are semi-legendary figures in a small room in the East of England, two musicians still reinventing themselves whilst their contemporaries try (and fail) to hark back to their glory days. Quasi are a band who encore with back-to-back covers of “War Pigs” and “Let’s Get It On” and pull it off.
Feel free to keep sending them over, Portland.