Monday, September 15
Quasi’s finest album, 1998’s Featuring Birds, starts with half a minute of chaotic banging and skrawking, the sound of primitive machinery going berserk, an opening that bears little relation to and even sharply contrasts with the precise, tuneful, and almost mechanical pop-rock that dominates the album. Conversely (or contrapositively?), the bed of cinematic, organ-like synths that open Hot Shit, the Portland duo’s fifth full-length, while certainly sinister, don’t prepare us for the sheer ragged humanness of the discordant slide-guitar licks that gradually overtake the synths. There’s more humanity here than past Quasi discs, partly due to the prominence of guitars over Sam Coomes’ beloved Roxichord, but also to the nicely broadened expressiveness of Coomes’ vocals, which are sometimes joined by those of (Sleatter-Kinney drummer, ex-wife; there, I said it) Janet Weiss. There’s also a lot of raggedness – in that the tunes are much looser in both composition and execution, many sporting a distinct blues influence (Coomes released an album of blues covers last year as the Blues Goblins), but also, I’m sorry to say, in a marked inconsistency of quality. For every high point (the appropriately-titled, tempo-shifting "Good Time Rock’n’Roll," the folksy stomp "Master and Dog,," the eerily tender lullaby "No One,") there are at least as many less successful tracks that either approximate the endearingly heavy-handed lo-fi-prog of earlier albums, but without the requisite melodic charm, or stab at new directions without much authenticity. Coomes’ trademark cynicism remains intact, in lyrics that tend towards the political more than ever, either very thinly veiled ("the elephant wields the rod/while the donkey throws you a bone") or stupid blatant ("White Devil’s Dream" offers cursory and echo-laden ‘fuck-you’s to the Bushes, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, et al), but he also offers a hint of hopefulness. Just before a final descent into surrealism, the penultimate "Good Times" (which opens with some gospel sampling) finishes of its litany of social ills with some arena-style riffs and a sarcastic-but-not-irredeemably-so promise: "good times, happy days/in spite of it all." As long as you’re not too picky, that might be a fitting summation for this album. The shit is indeed quasi-hot.
Town and Country - 5
Neither country-western nor township jive (what a nifty genre-fusion that would be!), the music of this Chicago ensemble – which, while theoretically evocative, doesn’t conjure up any specific locale for me, rural or urban – doesn’t yet entirely gainsay their moniker. They share an ideological sophistication with contemporary art ("classical") music (that would be the town part), and their shtick, such as it is, is an oldfangled insistence on employing only acoustic instruments to make their noise (there’s something country about that, right?) The basic approach here is drone – think, just for fun, of the tone processing of someone like Keith Fullerton Whitman, but executed without the aid of electronics. So, on this fifth release (titled after the likes of Lenny Kravitz and Joan Baez), we get things such as opener "Sleeping in the midday sun," which takes ten minutes to build from sustained tone-clusters played on cornet, viola, and double bass (fun fact – bassist Josh Abrams is a Philly native and founding member of the Roots) to a veritable rhythmic frenzy of chekere and triangle. Up next is "Aubergine," a blend of gently repeated chimes and lingering bass clarinet that feels startingly static by contrast. "Lifestyled" offers some inspired jangling and sawing, and "Shirtless" blossoms into a nice mechanistic thrumming rhythm, but essentially there’s not a whole lot of variation among these six tracks.
Needless to say, Town and Country are functioning rather outside the realm of pop music; their provenance and label affiliations would suggest tagging them post-rok, but that isn’t quite right either. When you get right down to it, there are only a few very limited ways to approach this music within a context of band names, song titles and record albums: it’s either boring or soothing/sweeping/haunting/otherwise emotionally transporting – but these types of descriptors are focused essentially on the sound and have little to say about the music itself. This is chamber music in a very traditional sense, and despite the fascinating ways that ensembles such as this one attempt to bridge the gap between popular and art music, the perplexing experience of trying to come to terms with this album is itself an indication that the intermediate ground is not yet fully colonized.