Although Quasi often seems forgotten about until it releases a new album, the duo -- Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss -- has been playing together for over 16 years. Outlasting many of Coomes's and Weiss's higher-profile projects (Sleater-Kinney, Heatmiser), Quasi has released a distinct if uneven series of albums since coming to notice in the late 1990s. After abandoning the lo-fi pop style and distinctive rocksichord sound the group perfected on the classic Featuring “Birds” (1998), the two spent most of the '00s mining tepid guitar rock that lacked the songwriting chops of their early records (The Sword of God, in 2001) or failing to marry Coomes's bluesy aspirations with topical political commentary (2003's career low Hot Shit!). When The Going Gets Dark, in 2006, showed signs that the group was emerging from this rut, but it was marred by a reliance on tentative piano-based tunes. After a decade in the sticks, then, American Gong is a restoration of the Quasi dynasty.
Opener “Repulsion” spins a seedy narrative of sexual frustration over punchy, unironic guitar maneuvers that benefit greatly from new recruit Joanna Bolme, who also plays bass in Stephen Malkmus' Jicks, alongside Weiss. The track sets the tone for the album, which sees Quasi recording as a trio for the first time ever. This traditional band dynamic loosens up the songs with a lived-in vibe that contrasts with the sometimes harshly ironic lyrics. “Everything and Nothing At All” is a lovely piano-inflected ballad, refreshingly free of Coomes's cynical lyrics but putting his appealing voice front and center. The track kicks off a trio of tunes, followed by the long, bluesy stomper “Bye Bye Blackbird,” with its effectively overdriven guitar solo, and concluding with the pithy, acoustic “The Jig Is Up,” that represent a veritable masterclass in indie songwriting.
Quasi's reappearance with their most consistent album in a decade feels appropriate. Just as guitar driven-indie rock in the classic sense threatened to disappear forever into a multifarious musical landscape of increasingly niche acts while the joyless conceptual pop of Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear have taken critical center stage, groups like Yellow Fever and Real Estate have revived an interest in guitar pop. The album proper ends with “Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler” (“Let The Good Times Roll”), a rollicking piano ballad that is equal parts melancholy and bombast, the perfect way for the members of Quasi to conclude their exhilarating return to form.
American Gong is the eighth album from indie-rock mainstays Quasi. They've switched labels, from the Chicago-based Touch and Go to Kill Rock Stars, which is based right in their back yard in Portland, Ore. Another change for the group is the inclusion of a bassist, Joanna Bolme, who now splits her time between Quasi and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. This marks the first time since their beginning in 1993 that Quasi have recorded as a trio. American Gong was mixed by the impressive line-up of Steve Fisk, Tucker Martine and Dave Fridmann.