Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Brattitude

Two rock bands both start to grow up

By Noel Murray

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  It's difficult to pinpoint, but it's possible that the word "bratty" entered the rock-critic lexicon in 1976, when The Modern Lovers released their long-delayed self-titled debut. The word certainly got a workout with the subsequent arrival of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and Elvis Costello. Rock 'n' roll had long harbored both arrogant youngsters and musical primitives, but "bratty" seemed to be the only word appropriate to cover this new wave of music, where the two impulses intersected. Though prior wunderkind like Phil Spector and Todd Rundgren had tried to sound experienced beyond their years, these brats combined precociousness with infantilism--they'd bake a pretty cake and then smush it into the carpet.

"Bratty" is still applied from time to time to musicians who combine some or all of the following elements: a doggedly minimalist sound, nasal vocals, snide posturing, and childlike lyrical obsessions. Lately, the word pops up in describing two otherwise disparate bands, the Portland, Ore.-based Quasi and the Scottish group Bis. But almost simultaneously, both acts are changing; 1999 finds the brats trying to grow up.

Field Studies, Quasi's just-released third album (not counting a hard-to-find collection of home recordings) doesn't initially sound too different from 1997's R&B Transmogrification or last year's Featuring "Birds." That's the curse of staking out a distinctive, stripped-down sound. Quasi is essentially a duo, with former Heatmiser/Built to Spill utilityman Sam Coomes on guitar and "rocksichord" (a modified organ), and Coomes' ex-wife Janet Weiss on drums (the same position she holds in Sleater-Kinney). Coomes plays his high, sing-songy vocals off Weiss' more nuanced background harmonies, while both of them bash away as noisily as they can on their tiny instruments.

It's a good sound, immediately arresting, with accents of flying-saucer beach pop and West Coast country-rock (especially when Coomes lets his slide guitar gently weep). But there's only so much to be done with it, and the seesaw cadence that Coomes applies to nearly all of his spiky lyrics tends to flatten out the band's records, making each song sound like the one before it, and therefore less and less special.

Except on Field Studies, which finds Quasi slowing down the tempos, lengthening the songs, and emphasizing the words. Coomes plays straight piano as much as he does his rocksichord, and the divorcees bring in a three-piece string section to sweeten the more frequent quiet passages. Also, pal Elliot Smith adds bass to a couple of tracks, including the jaded "All the Same," which pulses like a sounding alarm clock, and the spare, poetic "Empty Words," which rocks gently until the breaks, when it crashes like high tide. Unlike Quasi's prior records, Field Studies displays a subtle sense of variety that keeps the music interesting not only on the 14th track of the album, but also on the 14th spin.

This goes a long way toward broadening the listener's impression of Quasi, who previously seemed to be a good-time band shouting perversely bitter lyrics. Now a song like "Under a Cloud" has a more fully realized point-of-view. Coomes' wry vocal and "first-day-of-piano-lessons" key-pounding underscore his brisk nursery rhyme, about how he'd rather live in gloom because it matches his arrested emotional state--which in turn matches the intentionally underdeveloped music. What Quasi offers is still fundamentally the acerbic wail of a know-it-all adolescent, but at least now the wail is more articulated. We feel their frustration, even if we don't quite share it.

Bis is coming from a slightly different place. Whereas Sam Coomes of Quasi is inclined to indict a materialist society for his inability to find love, the kids from Bis are more likely to complain that it's a school night, and they can't stay out late dancing.

Starting as actual teenagers in 1994, Bis promoted themselves as part of a "Teen-C Revolution"--although the Scots' cartoonishly drawn self-portraits and their lyrics about dinosaurs and rollerblading seemed to evoke preadolescence. They were part of a still growing worldwide youth trend, wherein older kids, terrified of growing up, actively try to recapture the mindless fun of sugar-filled Saturday mornings.

Social Dancing, Bis' second full-length LP on the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal imprint (following scores of import EPs and domestic compilations), still relies on keyboardist Manda Rin's angry-cheerleader vocals and the hyperactive videogame-soundtrack grinding of guitarist Sci-fi Steve and drummer John Disco. But their non-stop party sound is put into an interesting context by producer Andy Gill, former leader of the insurgent staccato-funk band Gang of Four. The young consumers meet the beat-obsessed socialist, and the tension produces a Bis with a little more wink behind its brashness.

While the band sings about being a "Shopoholic" or a night at a "Eurodisco," the musical backdrop is so kinetic that it confronts the listener with the noisy results of unchecked capitalism. Gill pushes a busy mix, with buzzsaw guitar, hand claps, and wonky beeps that sound like a computer overheating. Bis' latent irony (always present in songs like "Kill Yr Boyfriend" and "Clockwork Punk") is now as prevalent in the musical arrangements as the band's homages to Japanese pop culture. Even if the overall results sound mostly like the early Thompson Twins, that's more enjoyable than it sounds. (Hey, listen to Side Kicks again sometime--it's still a fun record.)

The main advantage that Gill brings to Bis, though, is an emphasis on bottom. Bis, like Quasi (and like many "bratty" bands), has no regular bassist, which means its music lacks the deep sexuality that the bass guitar adds to rock 'n' roll. Often the appeal of "youth-centric" acts like Bis--like the appeal of old TV-show lunchboxes and Atari 2600 video games--is the evocation of a "simpler" time, when young men and women didn't have to fret about responsibility, relationships, or, yes, sex.

But growing up has its pleasures, too, including both sex and the thrill of being taken seriously. And listening to a band grow up is a pleasure. Bis and Quasi both have made entertaining music before, but unless you were pining for the angst and silliness of middle school, they were hard to listen to for more than 15 minutes at a stretch. Now it's like your goofy nephew has stopped talking about his favorite cartoons and wants you to read his essay on the failings of the two-party system. Sure, you feel a pang of regret for lost youth, but more than that, you feel kinda proud.


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