Seven must be Janet Weiss’ lucky number. Last year saw the release of her band Sleater-Kinney’s seventh album, the utterly fantastic The Woods. But that was 2005. What has Weiss done for us lately? This year, Weiss and ex-husband Sam Coomes give us When the Going Gets Dark, Quasi’s seventh release and their best album since 1998’s Featuring “Birds.”
When the Going Gets Dark begins with “Alice the Goon,” a heavy song that pummels you with sound from the get-go. Producer David Fridmann, who helped hone Sleater-Kinney’s live intensity on The Woods, gives When the Going Gets Dark its ferocious sound and the record is all the better for it. Fridmann works perfectly with Weiss, who is nothing if not ferocious. I do not know if it’s possible to sing Weiss’ praises enough. She pounds the skins with such force it’s no wonder she has trouble keeping her hi-hat upright during live performances.
Sometimes Built to Spill member (among other notable bands) Coomes is equally skillful as a musician and has little trouble keeping up with Weiss. Much like 2003’s Hot Shit, Coomes uses a piano, opposed to the Roxichord of earlier releases, giving the band a much more organic feel. He strikes the keys with a Jerry Lee Lewis-like energy. The slide guitar on the title track rises and falls, the notes bending their way above Weiss’ drums, giving the song a deep, spacey feel. Weiss’ backing vocals, which appear intermittently throughout When the Going Gets Dark but are most effective on the title track, float on top of the instrumentals, only serving to accentuating the song’s ethereal, yet still intense, mood. Like Coomes’ thin vocals, Weiss is not the strongest of singers but she’s never at the forefront of a song vocally and, on every song Weiss appears on, her voice only adds to the depth of the song.
Coomes largely leaves behind the political sentiment that marked, and often hampered, Hot Shit. Instead of outright telling right-wing political figures to fuck off, like on Hot Shit‘s “White Devil’s Dream,” he is a little more subversive. On “Death Culture Blues,” Coomes sings “Now we’re told just to get in line / and bow down to the almighty dollar sign / The battle turns from left to right / But I’m not going down without a fight.” Much of the album art features eyes, reflecting the themes of sight, or lack thereof, that run throughout the lyrics. He sings of an electric eye in “Alice the Goon” and on “The Rhino” and “I Don’t Know You Anymore,” Coomes paranoiacally sings of being watched, among other eye references.
Quasi understand that their forte lies in their music and Coomes’ strained wails are not nearly as prevalent as on previous releases. “Presto Change-o” is an entirely instrumental affair, placed as a nice midpoint within the album. They do right in allowing the music to speak for itself. Coomes and Weiss share a proclivity for allowing each song to descend into musical freak out territory, pushing each track in unforeseeable directions. What is remarkable about the pair is that they can then pull the song back together, crafting pop gems. While this can make some songs seem a little unfinished or directionless, like “The Rhino,” the pair can still write one hell of catchy pop song, even if there is a little dissonance in between the hooks.
Quasi – Featuring “Birds”
Sleater-Kinney – The Woods
Built to Spill – Keep it Like a Secret