Originating as a side project for members of Heatmiser and Sleater-Kinney, and outlasting both by significant margins, the longevity of Portland’s Quasi spans two complete presidencies. Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss were the underground’s ex-married band of note for half a decade before the White Stripes even started hinting at their brother/sister act. And although they were heavily enmeshed in a particular brand of 90s college radio rock, that’s not quite what they made. With Weiss roughing up the drums, their songs could seldom be called shy or retiring, but theirs was always a more sour sound—disappointed pop miniatures lead by rainy-day rocksichord melodies. Over years of gradual evolution, they tried plenty of new wrinkles, briefly gained and dropped a political bent, and added recording and touring bassist Joanna Bolme from Steve Malkmus’ Jicks. But it’s still strange that these lifers should wait until their ninth album to finally unleash an exemplar of the classic, heavy-yet-relaxed strain of indie guitar-rock that dominated their original scene. That American Gong should be their debut for Kill Rock Stars makes magically perfect sense.
American Gong puts its best riff forward immediately, with the charging opener “Repulsion.” Bolme’s first stint in the studio with the group has them sounding fuller than ever. Coomes’ nasal voice has mellowed a bit, trading some youthful pinch for well-earned gravel, and blossoming into warm melody with Weiss’ backing help. She also remembers how to totally kick ass on the kit, apparently. Like many songs on the record, “Repulsion” sounds both exuberant and laid back, content and confident to the point that it’ll risk an extended victory lap rather than burn brightly out. Even the compositional leg-stretching is done with a bit of wry self-awareness (here Coomes prefaces his curtain call by singing, “I could not stop, I stayed too long”). There’s a twinkly, melodic ballad or two mixed in, which these vets handle just fine, but it’s Coomes’ stoney guitar heroics that stick with you. This is clearly the best record Quasi’s made in a decade, and that might be underselling it.