One of the great post-R.E.M. albums to see heavy rotation on late-‘80s college radio was the eponymous debut by a San Francisco band called the Donner Party. Gloriously raw guitar-driven sound and sweet boy-girl harmonies aside, the band wouldn’t have been a blip on the radar without the stellar songwriting of leader Sam Coomes. His tunes managed to be chock full of hooks without resorting to predictability, and his dour but clever lyrics (“Oh, let me recline in my chair in the corner / No one in heaven or earth is forlorner”) prefigured the cynical ‘90s without giving in to its whiny, insufferable petulance.
Then the Donner Party dropped off the face of the planet. Poof.
Years later, I discovered a Portland, Ore., roxichord-and-drums duo called Quasi after reading about their album “R&B Transmogrification” in an indie music mag. I bought the disc and dropped it in the player without looking at the liner notes, and before the first track was over I knew I’d found the missing Mr. Coomes. Sure, the tunes are now mostly drenched in hyperactive blasts of organ instead of messy guitar, but the quirky pop smarts and bittersweet lyrical bent are unmistakable.
Both the grittier, “R&B” and the epic follow-up, 1998’s “Featuring Birds,” were pure pop genius from start to finish. Three discs since have been somewhat more hit-or-miss, but they’ve all featured moments of brilliance from both Coomes and his drummer/ex-wife Janet Weiss (of Sleater-Kinney fame).
A new album, “When the Going Gets Dark,” is due out in late March on Touch & Go. If “The Rhino” is any indication, this record is going to be much looser and less angular. If that signals a return to the sinuous shizophrenia of “R&B,” I’ll be a happy man.
A tune from the new Quasi disc, courtesy of Touch & Go:
Quasi: “The Rhino” from “When the Going Gets Dark” [mp3]