When last we left the dynamic duo of Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss, our Oregonian heroes were trying to save the land from political despotism. Headed toward an election year, the fabulously-titled 2003 album Hot Shit urged us to “wake up from the white devil’s dream” of the corrupt Bush regime and its steaming pile of bull. Amen!
Prior to 2003, Quasi tended toward a different sort of political focus. Since the mid-1990s, the duo has turned a sharp eye toward the politics of love — a fitting topic for a former couple still literally, if not metaphorically, making music together. This was a duo that turned a failed relationship into magnificently wry, self-incriminating reflections on the difficulties of love itself — both in a relationship and in its aftermath.
Now, in 2006, the going has gotten darker, politically and personally. Quasi has responded with a smoldering album of rage and frustration. On When the Going Gets Dark personal and public life collide in a pit of despair. A clanking, bluesy, Zepped-out sound arises, but the molten core of musical truth never quite congeals. The going has gotten dark, but Quasi can’t quite get going.
Sparks fly from Janet Weiss’s Zeppelin-o-rific, Bonzo drumming. Meanwhile, Sam Coomes smacks his keyboards around and rips one fierce riff after another from his guitar strings. The music is less melodically pleasing than on previous Quasi recordings. Instead, feedback, dissonant noise, and overdriven, distorted drums continually interrupt the songs. Meanwhile, Coomes and Weiss scream over the sonic flames, their voices burning up in the conflagration.
Whereas Hot Shit found the duo trying to smoke the current administration out of its cave of power in Washington, DC, When the Going Gets Dark is protest music turned inward. Just as the left has engaged in seasons of self-inspection to the point of self-mutilation since the 2004 loss at the polls, so too, Weiss and Coomes take stock of their own willingness to keep up the fight. Feeling like a “lump of coal” stuck “down in a hole”, a “crab dragging claws through the mire, down below the murky depths of nowhere” having fallen from the “highest hill to the lowest pit”, Coomes and Weiss finally announce toward the end of the album that they’re “tired of singing the Death Culture Blues!”
But sing it they do. And righteously. As usual for Quasi, the lyrics are brutally honest and vulnerable. Coomes clings for dear life to his beliefs in the face of doubt. “They’ll rattle your cage, they’ll yank your chain, and all your dreams tumble down the drain.” But, he tries to reassure himself about not selling out to the larger political powers that be: “Never give up, never give in — poverty sucks but it ain’t no sin.”
Coomes and Weiss want to hold on to even the most idealistic dreams of American progressives. “Peace and love ain’t no pose,” Coomes insists on a song by the same name. “Not just something you sing at shows.” As Coomes repeats this ’60s-rock mantra over and over again — “Peace and love, peace and love” — his voice wavers and cracks, as if he himself is testing the strength of that hoary phrase. Can “peace and love” still measure up? Do those words still have potency?
As the name has always suggested, Quasi is highly suspicious of easy postures of authenticity. Phrases such as “peace and love” cannot have empty meaning — they have to ring true. They have to survive the heat that Weiss and Coomes’s blacksmith hammerings and blasts of vocal scrutiny impart. Testing for the truth also involves getting stuck at the anvil, acknowledging the darkness that is closing in all around, including the darkness within one’s very soul — and still catching those sparks as they fly off the works.
When the Going Gets Dark seems stuck in a rut precisely because it is an album about being stuck in a rut. Deep in the muck of misery, about to give up, Weiss and Coomes finally catch themselves. Toward the end of the album, they sing: “The battle turns from left to right / But I’m not going down without a fight / I’ve done my time, I took my bath / I’m back on track down the shining path.”
And on the final song, “Invisible Star,” they return to their own music-making as a wellspring of sustenance. Years into their careers, failed in their personal relationship and down in the dumps about their political goals, they find their bearings in each other’s expressive sounds. Their music becomes a world-creating force, a safety zone, a force of nature. They rediscover their deep comradeship in the very act of playing together. “Invisible Star” asserts that the music of Quasi is real — it fuels and feeds and even transcends. Banged up and bruised, Quasi’s duo-power buoys them up on the heat of their interacting creative energies. “Leave it behind — have no fear,” Coomes sings. Then he and Weiss join together in affirmation before soaring off into the clouds on a guitar-and-drums crescendo: “Feel what you hear. Am I not still near?”