I love Quasi. There are less partisan ways of beginning a new album review, but rather than build to that confession, let me state it first and gradually unpack why. Quasi are a Portland, Oregon-based duo consisting of Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss, and Breaking the Balls of History is their tenth LP. Remarkably, they have been together off and on for 30 years, starting in 1993. This is their first release in a decade since Mole City in 2013. They belong to a loose-knit indie rock tradition of purported side projects – Sebadoh, Silver Jews, Portastatic – that have since become esteemed musical acts on their own. If there is any justice in this world, Breaking the Balls of History should receive at least as much attention as Wet Leg‘s debut last year, which recently won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album.
For established fans of Quasi, this may come across as an unfair comparison and perhaps a backhanded compliment, given the veteran status of its two members. Weiss is best known for being the longstanding percussionist for Sleater-Kinney. She has also been a member of Stephen Malkmus‘ post-Pavement project, the Jicks, and the all-women indie supergroup Wild Flag. Sam Coomes’ CV is equally eminent, having been a member of Heatmiser with Elliott Smith and playing on albums by Built to Spill, Sleater-Kinney, and on the solo work of Smith. Together, Coomes and Weiss have unimpeachable credentials in the Pacific Northwest scene, with decades of songwriting behind them across different trends and subgenres of indie rock.
Quasi’s signature sound can largely be attributed to the Rock-Si-Chord, a keyboard instrument intended as an electric harpsichord, played by Coomes, the duo’s primary songwriter. It is an unusual, though highly adaptable, instrument that could sound at home at either a Peter Frampton concert or in a David Lynch film depending on the setting. This instrumentation further suggests an affinity with the songcraft of perhaps Stereolab or Yo La Tengo. Quasi, however, produce a sound less drone-heavy akin to the Velvet Underground circa The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), and more poppy and psychedelic like the Beatles during their Revolver (1966) era. The effect is a retro garage rock sound that also feels of the present moment through Weiss’s oft-foregrounded drumming.
Breaking the Balls of History sustains this approach while updating the production value a notch with results that sound more polished than in preceding efforts. It is a Covid album, conceived and written while under lockdown and recorded in five days. A magpie sensibility rules as with their previous releases, revealing a diverse set of influences across the rock spectrum. The opening track, “Last Long Laugh”, possesses a soft-loud-soft-loud dynamic that betrays their 1990s roots. Less coy but with the same sound, it is an excellent reminder of where recent bands like Wet Leg and their hit single “Chaise Longue” owe their livelihoods. Soul/blues-driven songs like “Back in Your Tree” and “Queen of Ears” convey a latent affinity with the Black Keys (another duo) circa Brothers (2010) by updating the Muscle Shoals Sound for present-day listeners. Meanwhile, “Gravity” has an orchestral, David Bowie-esque, “Space Oddity” vibe. These are only the first four tracks out of 12 total.
The remaining take off in different directions, solidifying these initial positions while also experimenting with other ideas. The most prominent are “Doomscrollers” and “Nowheresville”, which expand the psych-roadhouse, blues-based sound mentioned before. Indeed, next to R&B Transmogrification (1997) and When the Going Gets Dark (2006), this LP is one of Quasi’s bluesiest. “Doomscrollers” breaks out into a Roy Orbison-like chorus, a counterpoint to Coomes’s lyrics that address online teaching, Punisher skulls, anti-vaxxers, and climate deniers – you know, the usual rock ‘n’ roll subject matter. Politics are also on Coomes’ mind in “Nowheresville”, which aims derision at the cliched rhetoric of “thoughts and prayers”. Weiss’s drumming in both songs is outstanding. It especially shines on “Nowheresville”, possessing a contagious boogie. Does anyone use that word anymore? Weiss seemingly reinvents it here.
Admittedly, some tracks sound like incomplete ideas, too. “Riots and Jokes” comes across like an extended keyboard jam from Steppenwolf, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t much more than that. The title tune, “Breaking the Balls of History”, has no lyrics beyond the title being repeated in different variations, which I concede I am unsure what it really means, though I intuitively like the concept. Midway in the song, Coomes and Weiss are just about venture into a “Savoy Truffle” shuffle from The White Album but don’t quite finish the thought. The prog rock number “Inbetweenness” with vocals by Weiss also left me wanting more.
This leads me back to why I love Quasi. Like a Joseph Cornell box, this album and its preceding ones contain different ideas, musical odds and ends that are sometimes cul-de-sacs and ephemera, but at other times cherished artifacts and prized found objects. The art comes in the configuration and juxtaposition. Quasi indeed have a tendency to open with their best. “Ghost Dreaming” from R&B Transmogrification is perfect. “You Can Stay But You Gotta Go” from Mole City may be their best song. But in saying so, I feel like I am displacing middle-album tracks like “The Happy Prole” and “Sea Shanty” from Featuring “Birds” (1998), “The Star You Left Behind” from Field Studies (1999), and “Pay Me Now, Or Pay Me Later” from Early Recordings (2001).
Breaking the Balls of History continues this momentum of irrepressible songcraft. Carrying the torch for three decades now, Quasi have become one of the more enduring musical collaborations out of the Pacific Northwest, and this is a peak moment in their discography. After ten years of patience, Quasi deserve their due.