I often imagine Quasi to be the best sort of side project, one that allows a certain freedom that the more self-conscious main gig may not. Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss both have significant other jobs playing with Elliott Smith and Sleater-Kinney, respectively. Recently, however, the critical recognition and relative popular success of Quasi have threatened the band's side-project charm. Their most recent effort, The Sword of God, was far more polished and other-directed than their earlier, more introspective (that's depressive!) albums.
Early Recordings, released this August on the band's current label, Touch & Go, is a chance to re-enter the innocent recent past, when Weiss and Coomes' audience was largely themselves and their friends. And, as a collection of first fits and starts, it gives a glimpse of Weiss and Coomes at work -- a window into the creative process. You get to hear them with their guard down, without the deliberate polish of fully realized album cuts.
For all that, Early Recordings does not suffer overmuch from the pitfalls of many such collections. Though plenty of the album rambles and trails off, there are plenty of gems to be found without much digging. Unlike Lou Barlow, who seems to think that every time he hits RECORD it's worthy of nationwide release, the tracks included on this collection are thoughtfully chosen. And, unlike REM's Dead Letter Office, which sounds like a collection of jokes, drunken episodes, and outtakes held together only by the album title, Early Recordings captures a coherent mood.
Said mood is predictably morose, with little of the biting sarcasm that pervades The Sword of God. Which makes sense, because most of the songs were recorded in 93-4, when Coomes and Weiss were still sorting through the wreckage of their personal relationship. The fallout from that union would characterize at least another two albums -- but Early Recordings is not simply a preview of things to come. For one thing, there's more of Janet Weiss' songwriting than on the most recent album. Her voice, at once high crooning and dark menace, is the best complement to the surrounding instrumental fuzz, and I wanted even more of it. Conversely, Sam Coomes' high, melodic tenor is not showcased; apart from a few songs ("Superficial", for one) the most prominent voices on this album are instrumental. As usual, I adore the drums, though in these recordings they're heavy and ponderous, not the light flourishes on The Sword of God.
I presume this is the sort of album that die-hard fans and completists will buy without question. But I think it's worthwhile even for the more casual listener: it is unique and compelling music, all the more so because it is so intimate, so immediate. Unless you travel in rarified circles, it's not often you get to be a fly on the wall while two very talented musicians work out their ideas.
It's gotten cold here in Iowa recently, and the day I listened to this album it was raining. Early Recordings is perfect music for that kind of day: rambling and melancholy, it permeated every corner of my house, crept up on me like twilight.