The problem with double albums nowadays is that they really prove the age and headspace of their creators. “We are old,” the double-album-making indie band says, “and we remember when an LP used to mean something. We remember when bands had a message – too much to say across just two sides of vinyl – and, in this digital age, we don’t want to compress or compromise our vision for anyone.” So, aside from whippersnappers Titus Andronicus’ peerless The Monitor (a concept album about the US Civil War), we’ve recently had the likes of The Flaming Lips’ Embryonic (the soundtrack to a thousand animal costumes being set alight) and, of course, Swans’ The Seer – the sonic equivalent of one of those massive paracetemol tablets that you can’t physically swallow, but you need as salvation from the migraine from hell.
But Portland DIY icons Quasi have never seemed like the type of band that had much to prove. Their previous seven albums have followed a relatively similar template of indelible melodies, unstoppable drumming and spiralling keyboard riffs – Quasi only really have one song but, much like fellow Portlanders The Thermals, it’s a fucking great one. 2010’s American Gong, which may well be the best of the bunch, shook things up a little by being more guitar-heavy, with Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks‘ bassist Joanna Bolme joining the band for good measure. Mole City, however, pares Quasi back down to the core duo of the ever-youthful sounding Sam Coomes and Janet “best drummer alive” Weiss; recorded at home, though far from lo-fi, the album sprawls its way through twenty-four songs, across two slabs of wax and employs every trick in the band’s arsenal, and all the trappings of double-LP excess.
So, you get the opening organ squiggle of ‘*’, an assortment of pointless synthfarts entitled ’Chrome Duck’, and the title track’s dabblings with musique concrète, each barely clocking in at a minute, and rubbing shoulders with the likes of the triumphantly distorted, boneheadedly melodic lead single ‘You Can Stay But You Gotta Go’ and the the dissonant piano pounding of ‘Headshrinker’, which valiantly tries (but fails) to out-Can Can. But when Quasi do maximalism right, it’s an extremely pleasant surprise; on any of their other albums, ‘Chumps of Chance’ would have been presented as another jaunty Roxichord rocker. However, on Mole City, it’s a desolate, pulsating soundscape with wondrously bleak lyrics (“You’re just another suicide – ain’t done nothin’ since the day you died, but that’s just the way you ride…”), whose attempts at levity can’t help but be overcome with darkness, as its “dum-dum-de-dum” refrain slides down Coomes’ vocal range into a chorus of “doom-doom-doom-doom”.
The classic Quasi sound remains in tact, though; with its Broadway melodies and complex time changes, ‘See You on Mars’ is cut from the same cloth as fan-favourite Featuring ‘Birds’, the slow-burning ‘Dust of the Sun’ is awash with feedback and drones, and the joyous mock-country romp of ‘Bedbug Town’ subverts hoary clichés, both lyrical (“You’ve got places to do, things to go…”) and musical (witness the year’s strangest slide-guitar solo), makes the record’s best use of the duo’s trademark harmonies. And, best of all, there’s ‘R.I.P.’, a blissful two-minute ditty gorgeously crooned by Weiss, whose Mo Tucker-like voice – the sound of a little girl lost in the middle of such a huge record – carries the song perfectly. Sadly, it’s her only shot at lead vocals on the whole record.
That Weiss only gets one chance at the mic is a minor gripe; Mole City‘s main issue is that it really is too much of a good thing. While the albums in the band’s catalogue are hardly concise, their latest simply doesn’t hold together well enough. At its best, it’s vintage Quasi – it doesn’t give a fuck, treating pop music with the irreverence it deserves. But at its worst, you find yourself checking the tracklist to see just how much more of the record is left. Then again, that’s what’s so fun about double albums, isn’t it? Cherry-picking your favourites and creating the best album that band never made. And, archetypal music afficionados that they are, it’s hard not to imagine that this was Quasi’s idea all along. Because if it was, they might just be right.