Annie Leibovitz be damned. You'll never see Quasi, rock's other ex-husband-and-wife duo, spread out in Vanity Fair's American music issue. Why? Some might argue it's because the Portland, Ore.-based band, God bless 'em, has yet to make a great album. And, the doubters have a point. Since the pair's focused, lo-fi signature Field Studies of 1999, songwriter Sam Coomes and drummer Janet Weiss (also of Sleater-Kinney) have failed to capitalize on their undeniable promise. 2001's menacing, pop-infused Sword of God -- for all its strong points -- left more than just a little to be desired. Even still, the real reason the group will never be featured as a great-thing-in-rock runs deeper than making less-than-stellar records a la ... um, James Taylor. Quasi, for all their experiments in synth-pop white noise, is just not an easy band to categorize (re: minimalism) or even rally around (re: the White Stripes). They make you work for your appreciation.
And, if their seventh studio album Hot Shit, on Touch and Go, is anything to go by, Coomes and Weiss are still not ready for their close-up. But, really, who cares? Quasi is too busy putting out challenging, downright fun rock tunes and inspired pop ballads to take the time.
Anchored by Weiss's divinely off-balanced drum beats, multi-instrumentalist and singer Coomes has abandoned his trademark desperate introspection for a more visceral approach to songwriting. The result is their best -- if still not yet great -- record to date: a beautiful and unsentimental look at the ways in which the pair's attitudes, politics and even expectations have changed since 2001.
On the eponymous opening track, Coomes plays anxious, off-tune chords by wringing his guitar neck over a maudlin orchestral loop, as if already confessing to the angst-ridden pitch that will run throughout the purposely tenuous Hot Shit. "Little things that just don't matter / still could get me mad as a hatter / Hot shit on a silver platter," he sings over Weiss's shaky "Gooood Byyee" harmonies before announcing "I just came back here to say good bye." Some hot shit, indeed.
"Drunken Tears" finds the band on familiar lyrical ground. But, rather than relying on his ubiquitous Roxichord, Coomes concedes equal time both to piano and drum alike, letting syncopated notes and Weiss's drumming breathe life into a song he would have suffocated in the past. And since we're on the subject of Weiss, it has to be said: Not only is she the best female rock drummer out there today, for my money, she's also the best drummer out there period. Take "White Devil's Dream," a damning, helter-skelter indictment of the Bush and Blair administrations driven by Weiss's raucous, recalcitrant stomp. If Weiss is keeping time on the next march on Washington, I'm following her all the way from Portland.
For all of Hot Shit's treats, none are as satisfying as "Good Time Rock and Roll," and "Sunshine Sounds," arguably the two best songs Quasi has ever created, and further proof for the Quasi-doubters that this is band to be reckoned with. The former is exactly that, while the latter brings the kind of gravitas necessary for quality rock music to peak out from under the belly of breezy pop standards and prove the genre still matters to American music. You know, just the sort of thing rock's other ex-husband-and-wife duo is said to have already accomplished.