Quasi's 'Breaking the Balls of History' Delivers a Swift Kick in the Nuts

BY Alan RantaPublished Feb 6, 2023

Janet Weiss — undisputed legend of the Pacific Northwest music scene, having notably played in the supergroup Wild Flag and on a couple of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks albums (including 2008's seminal Real Emotional Trash) — had a more tense pandemic experience than most. The fierce drummer best known as the backbone of Sleater-Kinney unceremoniously left the iconic rock band after fifteen years of service due to creative differences in mid 2019. A month or so later, she was in a serious car accident that left her with broken legs and a cracked collarbone, and then life was put on pause by the first wave of COVID-19.

Back in 1993, before Sleater-Kinney even formed, Weiss started Quasi with her then-husband Sam Coomes. A legend in his own right, Coomes is credited on many of the greatest songs by Built to Spill and Elliott Smith, having also performed on the final Heatmiser album. Their marriage didn't last long, but Weiss and Coomes kept the band together ever since, even expanding to include Jicks bassist Joanna Bolme for the years surrounding 2010's American Gong. Paring back down to the original duo for Breaking the Balls of History, Quasi's tenth studio album is a gem forged by unrepeatable pressure and unique chemistry. 

Given their history and location, it was almost surprising that the pair had never released an album on Sub Pop before 2023. After so many years and records issued through the likes of Touch and Go, Kill Rock Stars, Domino, and Up Records, Quasi signed to the Seattle-based label that broke Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney for Breaking the Balls of History, their tenth full-length released ten years after their last album on their thirtieth anniversary as a band. The planets seemed to align for this blessed union of skill and passion.

With John Goodmanson (Bikini Kill, Blonde Redhead) producing, Weiss and Coomes hunkered down for five days together at Shoreline, Washington's famed Robert Lang Studios. Playing live off the floor in the same space where Nirvana recorded their final session, the duo exorcised all the frustrations of the times through the ecstasy of quasi-live performance.

Using a self-imposed "tour" as a sort of physical therapy while healing from her injuries, Weiss had regained her strength on the kit as the band basically played a live show in their practice space every day. By the time they landed at Robert Lang, they had at least a dozen bullets in the chamber, enough to hone a visceral 12-song indie rock assault.

Showing little patience for the laid-back piano-laden blues-rock twang of 2003's underrated Hot Shit! or the sprawling sonic experimentation of their 2013 double-LP Mole City, Breaking the Balls of History is a tight collection showcasing the band at their most immediate and unflinchingly raw. Weiss' brutality on the kit is matched by Coomes' attacks on his distorted, organ-like Rocksichord, imbuing the record with the kind of propulsion usually reserved for rockets headed to outer space.

"Doomscroller" paints a particularly vivid portrait of its contemporary cultural climate. Enhanced by Weiss' pounding John Bonham-esque drums and a percussive, layered keyboard-ish melody, Coomes sings of "all the kids in their virtual classes / stuck at home sitting on their asses / and all the houses lost to fires / the anti-vaxxers and the climate deniers." It's a moment that takes you right back to the bunker.

While so many singers abuse pitch-correction software to disguise their lack of talent, "Shitty Is Pretty" strikes to the heart of what makes Quasi's ilk of lo-fi indie rock so compelling. There is a courage and power in allowing your humanity to show, exposing your flaws and using them as strengths. It's the not-being-perfect that makes it perfect, or at least human. It's the essence of what we missed by not experiencing live music.

Channeling peak-era Pavement, "Nowheresville" hits hard with the lyric "thoughts and prayers / won't get you there" and a raunchy organ sound like Deep Purple went space truckin', while the chunky communication breakdown in "Back in Your Tree" peaks with a quotation of, "'Fuck the whole human race, man.'" Clearly, no punches were pulled in the making of this album.

Yet, amidst its ecstatic regurgitation of post-facts anxiety, the album has moments of pure beauty. The Mellotron-heavy melody of "Gravity" gives it an elegant weight, while the wordless backing vocals of "Queen of Ears" lend it a glint of Spector-haunted retro-pop nostalgia.

Bringing the album to a bittersweet close, "The Losers Win" begins like a zombie movie theme before relaxing into something that may have fit on Harry Nilsson's Popeye soundtrack, with a shimmering maestoso church organ melody and rich vocal duet that has Coomes proclaiming "you're gonna lose anyway / again and again / until the day the losers win" while Weiss coos in surfy harmony. It's a song that seems to stop time, so only when it ends does the deafening silence snap us to attention and we realize what we've lost.

With the world coming apart at the seams, Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes have never sounded more together, more single-minded and strong-willed. They made an album that needed to be made. Quasi went all-in on Breaking the Balls of History, and it lives up to its absolutely killer title.
(Sub Pop)

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