For 13 years, Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss have continually proven themselves as the hardest rocking, hardest working indie rock duo in the Pacific Northwest. And for at least half that time, the Portland pair belted out their mega-distorted, ass kicking tunes with little more than a drumkit and a Roxichord. Yet as Coomes and Weiss have been progressing toward bigger, beefier rock songs on albums like The Sword of God and 2006′s awesome When the Going Gets Dark, they’ve appeared ready to blow their sound open and amplify their ragged, speaker-blowing sound even further. So after the release of their last album, they took the next logical step and expanded from a duo to a trio, welcoming bassist Joanna Bolme, also of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, into their circle of fuzz.
One might think that merely adding a bass player to a band wouldn’t make that much of a difference, but as evident on Quasi’s seventh album American Gong (or eighth if you count their first cassette), Bolme’s inclusion lends the album a massive weight that wasn’t always so apparent on past releases. Her thunderous low end kicks off the first song, “Repulsion,” backing Coomes’ guitar scratches, setting a beastly tone for the rest of the album to follow. On American Gong, Quasi doesn’t just rock, they dial up the heaviness, hitting the listener like a concrete block.
For all the album’s explosive power, however, it’s still as catchy as the band has ever been. The vocal harmonies on “Repulsion” are exquisite, and the chorus of “riding around on your little white horse” on “Little White Horse” is one of the album’s most giddily fun moments, the song itself a particular standout. And all in all, there’s a classic rock vibe throughout the album, echoing Zeppelin, Sabbath and The Beatles, in their own idiosyncratic way. Piano-heavy ballad “Everything & Nothing At All” is a sort of gospel-blues number by-way-of The White Album. “Bye Bye Blackbird,” an epic at six and a half minutes, starts off with some understated riff arpeggios before detonating a powder keg of bass and snare, effectively making for one of the most badass things I’ve heard this year.
The group tones down their more destructive tendencies in the short, acoustic “The Jig Is Up,” but this is only a brief respite before the trio ushers in the stunning gloom of “Black Dogs and Bubbles,” a track that ranks as one of the strongest they’ve ever written. “Rockabilly Party” only slightly lives up to its name, incorporating a little honky-tonky into their furious approach, while closer “Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler” brings a familiar piano ballad sound that Coomes and Weiss perfected on past records.
That Quasi has gotten so much mileage out of a fairly straightforward approach is a testament to their versatility, both as songwriters and musicians. However, even the most talented of duos have their limitations, and as a trio, Quasi sets the bar even higher. American Gong doesn’t sacrifice any of the character of the band’s past albums, keeping the same pessimistic humor and pop craftsmanship that makes them unique. But what it does is expand the band’s capabilities, as well as show just how much better they sound with the volume knob cranked.