There’s a lyric from “Your Heart Is a Muscle” on the Quails’ latest release Atmosphere that runs, “Your heart’s a muscle the size of a fist,” sung by Jen Smith, that is drowned out by another lyric, sung by Julianna Bright in double-time, that runs, “Keep loving / Keep fighting / Keep loving / Keep fighting.” The dichotomy the two singers set up here, between the metaphorical heart (as potential center of love) and the metaphorical fist (as a potential source of aggression), threads through the album.
Less splattery and more song-structured than their previous release We Are the Quails, this new album comes across like a project by your cooler older sibling’s garage band, with a propensity for guitars and harmonies and loudness. Unfortunately, this at times works to the band’s disadvantage. The songs, because they sound less like sketches, and more like full compositions (they’re longer, too, on the whole), have less room for the strange R&B-meets-riot grrrl sound of their last album. It’s almost as if the band, in trying to amp up the muscly riffage, have sacrificed pieces of their playfully weird hearts.
Fortunately, the three Quails—Smith on guitar and Bright on drums are joined by Seth Lorinczi on bass—manage to save the quirkiness of their previous album, which helps this album rise above the fog of sound-alike bands from the West coast of the US. We can thank the goddesses that they’re still being political, too, because, for weaker bands, the need to rock out sometimes precludes the need to be politically aware. (Although hailing from San Francisco, and featuring ex-members of the Cha Cha Cabaret, the Electrolettes, and the sadly-missed Circus Lupus, the Quails sound like they wouldn’t be out of place in that hotbed of dance-at-the-revolution bands city of Olympia, Washington.)
The album’s opener and closers, “Riding the 5” and “Lovers of the People”, respectively, act as nice bookends for the album. Beginning with a heavy bassline, punctuated with ride cymbals and aluminum hen-scratch guitar, the former speeds up with a steady beat, with a trumpet echoing Smith’s doots and whoops. Everything quiets down momentarily for Bright’s lyrics; Smith gradually repeats Bright’s lyrics one step behind her while Lorinczi intones some doots and whoops of his own. The song gradually builds some more, only to pause momentarily for some guitar-bass-drum showboating, before the lyrics and previous structure start again. It’s almost as if the song subverts the ever-forward movement and ever-heightening tempo we expect from it. “Lovers of the People”, on the other hand, is a minimal jazzy number, driven by upright bass and punctuated with synthesized handclaps and tinny percussion.
And somewhere in between doth the rest of the album lie. There are the more rockish songs, to be sure, but there are enough intriguing sounds floating around in them to grab your attention. In “Atmosphere”, Smith commands, “What to do when you have no voice? / What to do when you haven’t got a choice? / What to do when you’re sick of it? / What to do when it’s all a bunch of shit? / What to do when you want to resist? / Make a fist!” (there’s that fist again). “Digitons”, sung predominantly by Lorinczi, starts with the barely-audible sound of a bird (a small pear-shaped game bird, perhaps?) and features a horn section that’s lost in the landscape of a Morricone western. “Memo from the Desk of the Quails”, sung/spoken by Smith, has Lorinczi’s “boogada-boogada-boogada” background vocals loping underneath a skiffly beat; this song gives way to Bright’s acoustic “Un Bargo Salvido”, a short Spanish version of the superfuzzed-out “When I Was a Lifeboat”, which immediately follows it.
“Easy” begins quietly and builds up to verses where Smith finishes the ends of Bright’s lines, and a chorus that sounds like the most fun shouted (and harmonized!) chorus yet recorded. There’s also a synthesizer that bubbles up occasionally through the aggressive thrashing, turning the song into the soundtrack for a robot’s dream of playtime. This song is easily the album’s diamond; it probably best illustrates the both/and dichotomy set up on this album by the Quails with their heart-as-a-fist metaphor. In other words, it’s hard to imagine Atmosphere being as interesting as it is without the presence of both the band’s love of angular sounds and their need to fight rock’s convention with those sounds.