When the Going Gets Dark
Touch & Go
t’s funny and dumb that the saddest lyric pulled off on When the Going Gets Dark is actually “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man / I live in a garbage can.” I mean, Sam Coomes, primary songwriter and half of Quasi, used to be in a band called Heatmiser with late frowner Elliott Smith, for chrissakes. In 1996, the band signed to Virgin, and with impeccable style, never recorded an album and quietly vaporized. Smith went on to conquer the darker corners of LiveJournals everywhere before copping out, and Coomes focused on the admirable goal of making depression funny again with Quasi, which he started in 1993 with then-wife and Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss.
They had a wonderful dynamic together, Coomes hammering away on his distorted rocksichord keyboard and Weiss underpinning him with her swingin’ S-K blueprints, offering the occasional song or backing vocal. Best of all, of course, was the reality show element of hearing a divorced couple play in a band, bittersweet because of their obvious musical connection and downright painful because of Coomes’s comically morose lyrics (especially when keeping in mind his ex-wife’s rising success). Think about a song like “You Turn Me On” from 1998’s Featuring “Birds”: Coomes moans “Everything’s a joke to you, it’s not that way to me / Walt Disney cannot make me happy, cannot make me go along,” sounding both self-deprecating and honest, just to have Weiss jump in on the rejoinder “But you turn me on, and it’s hard to turn me on.” That album still feels like a trap: when you laugh at it, you immediately feel bad for doing so; when you tear up, you feel fucking ridiculous.
As a huge fan of that record, it’s both impossible and unfair of me to say that they haven’t reached that peak since. In a sense, it’s a good thing: Coomes only sounded mildly upset on 1999’s Field Studies, and settled into less fragile dissatisfaction on The Sword of God and even political dissent on the ambiguously-named Hot Shit!, slowing down and beefing up their sound with classic rock signifiers and broader instrumentation along the way (not unlike Sleater-Kinney, actually). In a sense, he’s followed a definitively Manly path: the clever, self-effacing pansy whose sensitivity calcifies over time into prole iconoclasm like “Poverty Sucks” or lines like “When you told me ‘You can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ I was thinking ‘Death before dishonor.’” Coomes sounds like the guy in your old town that never left and now lives by maxims like life will crush you or buck up or fuck up (quoted from truth), bleakness only earned by crying—a lot. So it’s a little weird that some of the time the band sounds like a more blue-collar Flaming Lips and Coomes like the devil on Wayne Coyne’s shoulder, like if the answer to “Do You Realize??” was “that all of your escapist positivity is vanity in the face of life’s gray parade of half-attained goals and casual inhumanity.” (In some sense, it’s no surprise; 4th lip Dave Fridmann produced the record, which adds a much-needed richness to their sound.)
But despite better production and the unbeatable chemistry of Coomes and Weiss, When the Going Gets Dark just doesn’t have as many memorable songs, nor does it spark the same kind of curious sympathy their best micro-miseries have. Sometimes they remind you what great, straightforward 70s-influenced indie rock could be like—the ragged dustbowl disco of “Death Culture Blues” or the title track’s stoner balladry—but they don’t totally excuse some of the really meandering moments on the record or Coomes’s occasionally bad lyrics. What’s ultimately refreshing about Quasi is that they’re a quality indie band that doesn’t really fit into any scene or agenda, but happily exists anyway—no more pathos-to-punchlines magic, but I’ll settle (and only settle) for a strong enough groove behind the Popeye theme, I guess.