I’ll come clean and confess forthright: I got Mole City totally wrong. The ninth full-length from Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss together as Quasi, I instantly wrote the record off as some kind of self-indulgent, excessively esoteric and purposefully impenetrable collection when in fact, with repeat exposure, it’s a most inviting, even humble album. Said humility is mirrored in the fact that, despite having had two hands in some of the most essential, so too influential recordings of recent times, Weiss mans the heavily laden merch desk we must all pass en route to Cargo’s innermost musical sanctum. Moreover, it’s one that ever-dependable Leodensian duo Sky Larkin have also long since pertained to, and even with the tunnel half-full at best, they make an inspired riot sonically redolent of Quasi’s native West Coast.
Loom, a scintillating piece of glittery, coquettish pop (and that in spite of its lyrical telling of a lurking spirit), ranks amongst their best itself, but Katie Harkin lacks a second vocalist to ghost her every word. “Loom, loom, you’re always in the room” she coos, although she, abiding accomplice Nestor Matthews and (comparatively) newly incorporated bassist Michael Matthews could certainly do with a couple more vocal cords entwined in the sprightly mêlée they joyfully contrive. Less sparkly, if all the more capable of sparking vivid animation, there’s a genuine desperation to Carve It Out: another from September’s exemplary Motto, Harkin et al. have guilefully scored “a niche” all of their own into 2013, and yet their ability to make significant incisions on a more mainstream(, arguably less discerning) audience continues to perplex. As sub-standard Motown remixes boom beyond the velveteen curtain inefficiently separating venue from adjacent tavern, if this may be their time, then Shoreditch may not be their place, the likes of Valerie yakking on over a revivified Still Windmills and a similarly brilliant Summit.
But whether revising former glories or really getting to grips with the Motto that now matters most, Sky Larkin have made such immense progress this year that a wider world really ought to be taking note by now. For fresh and openly free, its title track sounds majestic as it does monolithic, transparently proving that if all else fails, Harkin could doubtless excel in milking the proverbial “cash cow” dry in exchange for such sardonic catchphrases as that which condemns the capital’s plethora of vapid “sloganeers, bending my ears”. Heard atop corybantic, Daydream Nation-inspired guitaristic tumult, it’s as demonstrative a statement of intent as it is a penetrative parting shot, and on today of all days – Friday, the 13th – we can but hope their luck is to change quite radically next year.
Having wound down, they’re left to wind up every last squiggly wire that’s been strewn across the stage, Coomes lauding Sky Larkin’s every member in turn as they do so. And Quasi, similarly, prove to be as potent and so too intoxicating a live force as they’ve yet been. Weiss joshes of some “London curse” that’s long since loomed over the duo, the evening’s opener going haywire within moments. But such is the (these days purely platonic) chemistry between Coomes and Weiss that, as they resume from “the fill, and then the solo”, any intimations toward incompetence are rather more endearing than they are deplorable, or indeed detrimental to the scuzzy impact of the evening. For Quasi are rough around the edges, Coomes at times simultaneously hammering his keys with eight fingers, two thumbs and the sole of a shoe, and it’s this imprecision which makes their performance quite so inspiriting. There’s a raw, aggressive timbre to it, tensile vanguardist interludes interwoven together with chaotic jazz bar vibrations. It’s interpretative, and at times even theatrical – whether Coomes takes to bashing a tambourine against his brain or stands atop a monitor to take a solo, he’s the restive central protagonist of the piece.
His momentary histrionics, in stark contrast to Weiss’ perma-nonchalance (she’ll continually roll her eyes as only so close an acquaintance can), add a duality to the night, and it’s one that’s absolutely paramount. For Mole City was, at the behest of its architects, a double album. Quasi are tonight a two-piece, sometime bassist Joanna Bolme back with The Jicks ahead of next year’s Wig Out At Jagbags, and are stationed on two very distinct, distinctly opposing sides of the stage. Their setlist, as was Mole City, is also split into two, with Coomes on keys for the former, and on guitar for the latter half. Both instruments are somewhat homogenised in tone, as Coomes’ every madcap extemporisation is filtered through a pedalboard, though the two aesthetics they achieve could only be more disparate had they been written by two different sets of people.
For instance, the devilish proto-punk of Good Times – now over a decade old – couldn’t sound more incongruous with the comparatively sludgy, roisterous You Can Stay But You Gotta Go. Coomes sneers of “a box, six feet underground”, and one element of the evening that categorically unites nigh on everything is the impression that, whether together or apart, he and Weiss look as though they’ve really lived life. It’s in the crackle of Coomes’ harsh caw; the scuffs that decorate Janet’s kick drum; the dilapidated, coffin-like box in which Sam’s keyboard came over. ‘FRAGILE: MUSICAL INSTRUMENT’ reads a series of spray-painted letters splattered onto its side, although when in such uproarious form, if the cracks may be starting to show then Quasi are all the better for it.
Led by the expertly blasé Weiss and her slouchy tom rolls, her hair blowing carefree in the breeze provided by a fan far stage-left, I Never Want To See You Again makes for a deranged, if strangely unifying highlight. And whilst Wild Flag may have now flown their last, she’s not without her devotees who huddle close in around her kit. From Mole City and “for all the misfits of the world – the square pegs; the don’t-fit-ins; the outta-steps; the misunderstood; the heads-in-the-cloud”, An Ice Cube in the Sun – perpetuated by guttural rumble – benefits from a raucously beautiful rethink, Coomes and Weiss’ similarities in vocal tone suggesting a kind of androgynous oneness, as well. See You On Mars, meanwhile, initially recalls “that martian sound” of The Flaming Lips, albeit further skewed by the somnolent effects of a devastatingly heavy dose of diazepam, before the duo forego the so-called “slow boat to China” in favour of a whirl around New Orleans honky tonk. Histrionic once more, this pianistic frivolity, replete with thoroughly ornate rhythmic frills, makes for the complete treat. And Weiss, bespeckled with satiny glints, has the showy sequins to match her showboating fills.
An appropriately screwy Blasted then ensues, before I’m Never Coming Back Again proves indicative of how much less impressionistic they can be when Coomes steps away from the keys. A meaty blues by way of contrast, the front row may now get a faceful of sole, although the room as one would’ve likely preferred the woozy soul of previous songs. Once more resorting to an Asiatic infatuation lyrical, we’re then “back at the Chinese restaurant” for a rollicking rip through Nostalgia Kills, while the commensurately American, hillbilly rock’n’roll of Bedbug Town brims with exotic, occidental charm. As does Weiss’ Domino eulogy, branding the London independent the “best label in the world.” In truth, she’s been around enough to know, and if they’re willing to dedicate a rousing Sea Shanty to Laurence Bell et al., well, they must be doing something quite alright.
Coomes effectuates awkward power chords, his palm impressively splayed out across the most part of a fretboard, as they lead on into It’s Raining. Quasi’s My Way in kind and climactic tenor likewise, it’s preluded by another encomium that’s yet more emotive still. “I don’t know why bands wanna get big, ‘cause this is much better” Weiss begins, her voice bristling with intense feeling. “Well, I do know why… But it’s such an honour to have played with Sam for twenty years. It’s amazing to have a musical partner who allows me to be who I am” she gushes among pleas we pay the merch table a visit in the pretty immediate future. True to their underground roots, they’ve collated ancient fanzines and made them into a book, while they’ve also the widest selection of vinyl records they’ve “ever had.” The eternal virtue of the Domino Recording Company is, this time, made unmistakably manifest.
But it’s in the live arena where Quasi truly thrive these days and, gloriously discordant right to the death, we wouldn’t, nor could we have ‘em any other way. And that’s inclusive of an extraneous reworking of Don’t Stop Me Now – an insurgent cri de cœur in the face of a curfew fast approaching. They’re eventually stopped, post a bestial take on War Pigs, but either way and incontrovertibly, it’s by and large been a real ball.