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Since it first started in 1993, Quasi has made a career out of wedding catchy, up-tempo pop music to some of the gloomiest lyrics around. Its new album, The Sword of God--and first for the Touch & Go label--is no exception. Songwriter/keyboardist Sam Coomes and his ex-wife, drummer Janet Weiss, the duo who make up Quasi, bring plenty of credentials to the table. Weiss is one-third of America's favorite all-female punk band, Sleater-Kinney, while Coomes plays bass for popular melancholy troubadour Elliott Smith. The pair also accompanies Smith on tour as his rhythm section. On earlier releases for Portland's Up imprint, Quasi mined fairly standard murky themes: broken relationships, marginalized lifestyles, misanthropic self-exploration, etc. This time they take it a step further, taking on full-blown spiritual malaise and doing so with enough intensity to ruin your day if you're not careful.
The Sword of God is the duo's fourth full-length effort, and it's their most fully realized work to date. At the core of their chemistry is the interplay between Weiss' drums and Coomes' Roxichord--a 25-year-old amplified harpsichord-like keyboard with distortion pedals. Despite unambitious production values (the album was recorded and mixed at their home studios in Portland), they manage to command a healthy variety of sounds from such a limited instrumental palette. Their sparse and keyboard-driven noise is filled with odd touches that offset the homegrown surroundings and keep the arrangements from coming off as redundant.
Beatles-esque sounds are particularly well-represented. "Fuck Hollywood" has an ascending orchestra (à la "A Day in the Life"), while the title track features layered Abbey Road guitar arpeggios, and the fruity string parts on "The Curse of Having It All" could have come straight from "Strawberry Fields Forever." And, of course, there's plenty of Coomes' Lennon-style keyboard pounding. But far from overwhelming the project, these flavorings just show that Quasi's heart is in the right place. Most of the time, they favor an earthy and driving punk approach. Songs like "Genetic Science," "Seal the Deal" and "Goblins & Trolls" keep things simple and score their points with nothing but sweat and energy. Coomes' Roxichord may seem limited by today's digital standards, but it's still capable of producing marvelously expressive and unique textures. And throughout the entire album, everything is held tightly in place by the innovative and informed drumming of Weiss, whose playing is always a joy to hear.
The album's title is taken from a line in the Bible, wherein the word of God is like a sword that destroys all doubt and disbelief. Far from a paean to the restorative power of faith, however, The Sword of God is one long anthemic embrace of fatalism. "It's Raining" challenges listeners to accept their empty lives without complaint, while "A Case of No Way Out" reminds us that our beliefs are much like fairy tales. Other songs try to take strength from such a dreary world view, but in the end, demons overwhelm the landscape. "You searched and you searched but no answer could be found," sings Coomes on "Better Luck Next Time." "Leaving this world behind" with "a bullet to the head or a razor to the vein," Quasi ends up floating in an ethereal limbo: "nothing, nowhere--meaningless and beautiful."
Strong stuff, but it's a point of view that Quasi probably knows its audience shares. As they offer in "Little Lord Fauntleroy," "Me & me & me/That's as far as you see/I know what it's like to be you/Because I'm a lot like that, too." The album does manage to end on somewhat of an upbeat note. The final track is a ripping instrumental titled "Rock and Roll Can Never Die," which sounds like nothing less than the soundtrack to the last Aerosmith concert before Armageddon. Perhaps for Quasi, there is something that will endure beyond the flesh after all.