Sam Coomes’s misery is just staggering. Or is it? Starting out his curious career in Portland-based Heatmiser with Elliott Smith — this is, until Smith headed down the dark path of his solo career — Coomes birthed Quasi with his ex-wife, Sleater-Kinney’s arms-of-steel drummer Janet Weiss. These two launched what would seem to be the Most Awkward Duo contest winner, but his songwriting strength coupled with her propulsive rhythms made their earlier efforts, particularly 1998’s Featuring "Birds," staples of the Northwest indie explosion. Aside from his kaleidoscope of keyboards, the defining trait of Coomes’s songwriting has been the overt misery in his lyrics, wrought with such cynicism and anguish — and a hint of sarcasm — that he just has to be kidding. Or does he?
When the Going Gets Dark, album number seven for Quasi, has been three years coming. Not exactly highly anticipated after 2003’s Hot Shit, which was not without its charms, it appears that Coomes and Weiss had the same dilemma Sleater-Kinney confronted before last year’s The Woods: After so many records, how can they make the music sound fresh? Fortunately, Quasi came to the same conclusion as Sleater-Kinney and recruited former Mercury Rev bassist and still-on-a-fucking-roll producer Dave Fridmann, whose touch has brought many acts (Flaming Lips, Low) out of the mid-career rut.
There’s a newfound bombast injected here, as if Coomes and Weiss have suitably settled into playing off each other’s strengths. Fridmann’s mixing taps into this, upping the ante with heightened levels of chaos similar to those found on The Woods while skillfully bringing together Weiss’s harmonies with Coomes’s child-like croons. Seamless sequencing helps propel the album along, until the shimmering keyboards of the instrumental "Beyond the Sea" pauses the proceedings to confirm that, yes, these are Fridmann’s fingerprints — think The Soft Bulletin‘s orchestral grandiosity.
The most striking departure here is that the misery in Coomes’s lyrics has been significantly harnessed. For fans of his inspired lyrical voice, this may be a disappointment, but it speaks to the level of the new polished forms that his delightful lyrical jabs aren’t quite the focus here. Skipping from dizzying keyboards to bluesy guitar, this is one of Coomes’s finest musical hours, capturing his muddled musings into tight and coherent disarray and focusing in on the dynamic between these two exceptionally talented divorcees.
‘When the Going Gets Dark’ on Touch and Go Records’ Web site (stream "The Rhino")