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Touch and Go

It’s hard to believe that Quasi is still making records. There’s something about the Portland, Ore., group that’s just so…well, ’90s. It’s not because drummer Janet Weiss’ other band, Sleater-Kinney, surfed the tail end of the riot-grrrl era. And it’s not because Quasi pioneered the popular turn-of-the-century married/divorced–duo lineup. No, it’s the keys-and-drums, yelling-into-the-wind, grown-up-indie-pop sound of Weiss and multi-instrumentalist Sam Coomes that conjures an image of Monica Lewinsky under that desk. Those were the days—when all we had to be cynical about was a good old-fashioned sex scandal. And Coomes seems to be missing the pre-aughts as well. After 2003’s mostly acoustic, Bush-bashing Hot Shit, the vocalist/songwriter returns to form with the new When the Going Gets Dark. Despite the gloomy title, its tracks are filled with the spirited tempos of 1998’s seminal Featuring “Birds,” and Coomes’ lyrics are again dedicated to politics on a more personal scale. “I Don’t Know You Anymore” is a typical Quasi somebody-done-somebody-wrong song (and no, they’re not singing about each other anymore), and “Merry X-Mas” places joyless harmony—“Merry Christmas, happy New Year/Pleased to meet you, how do you do?”—over a characteristically stomping interlude before building into a snare-filled jam. The Steely Dan–esque “Death Culture Blues” seems a possible exception, a righteous carryover from Hot Shit: “The battle turns from left to right/But I’m not going down without a fight.” But when Coomes hollers, “I’m tired of singing the death-culture blues,” he just as easily could be echoing “Birds”’s prescient “The Poisoned Well,” an ode to sometime-Quasi-frontman Elliott Smith’s suicidal tendencies. Reportedly, Dark took almost three years to make; the nearly finished tracks were allowed to ripen for a while before being turned over to Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann for a spit-shine. The trademarks—Coomes’ off-key vocals and minor scales, Weiss’ straightforward beats and ethereal harmony—are still there, but the smoother mix reveals details that carry the songs beyond ramshackle DIY roots rock. “Poverty Sucks”’s acoustic guitar shimmers over thumping drums, and the relatively restrained piano meanderings are illuminated rather than pushed into the shadows. And album-ending ballad “Invisible Star” is all crystal-clear, string-gilded chamber rock, with nonsensical lyrics such as “Am I not your tree?” that are forgiven the moment you realize this should be a new generation’s “Melissa” or “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Come to think of it, it’s easy to believe that Quasi made this record: It would make the perfect swan song. —Anne Marson