- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 6, 2001

QUASI

The Sword of God

(Touch and Go Records)

Indie pop darlings Quasi's latest offering once again melds more of principal songwriter Sam Coomes' trademark pleasant, catchy pop hooks with bleak, seemingly inappropriate lyrics, although this time Mr. Coomes' demeanor seems to have taken a turn from despairing to bitter.

"The Sword of God," the fifth album released by the once-married duo of garage-keyboardist Coomes and riveting drummer Janet Weiss, finds the band trying to tread new ground without veering too far from its established pop sensibilities. Opening with a more cinematic flair, the album is at its best when it firmly reminds one of previous Quasi works. More bitter or not, the best songs on "Sword" still are impossible not to hum along to. Imagine singing in the shower to lyrics such as, "Birth by birth / we're cast out on this Earth / to a welcome of blood and screams. Days roll past / anyone might be your last / as you run at your fleeting dreams."

Those lines come from "A Case of No Way Out," a standout track on the album. Other songs find Mr. Coomes once again wittily waxing caustic against pointless labor, egocentric whining and, ironically, judgmentalism. The lyrics aren't the only things that work on this album, however. Mr. Coomes' trashy synthetic keyboards, meant to resemble the roxichord he used on earlier releases before that outmoded 1970s-era instrument broke down on him a couple of years ago, and Miss Weiss' stellar drumming combine for a couple of exquisite jams reminiscent of the duo's raw second album, 1996's "R&B Transmogrification." In fact, the instrumental introduction to "Seal the Deal" may be one of the band's finest moments to date. Another solid song, 'Goblins and Trolls," has a similar rough-hewn start before giving way to the finest vocals on the album and restrained harmonies that evoke the band's best album by far, 1997's magnificent "Featuring Birds."

"Sword of God" loses steam toward the end, but overall it's a fine addition to this respected band's body of work. Not as raw as "R&B" or as gorgeous as "Featuring Birds," it is still, if not a must listen, an enjoyable one.

Quasi plays the Black Cat in Northwest tonight.

Joe Schaeffer


CACTUS PATCH

Self-titled

(Garden of Sweden Records)

This has been a good year for local debut albums. Baltimore band Fidel released its melodic self-titled record this summer, and now D.C. darling Cactus Patch is adding to the mix with its hook-heavy self-titled CD.

The album doesn't pack the same punch as the band's energetic live show, but it comes pretty close. Vince Scheuerman, who is the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist, sings like an up-tempo Jeff Buckley fronting the nerdy rock quartet Weezer on the first single, "These Hands." As the power chords kick in for the chorus, Mr. Scheuerman's voice soars as he sings the uplifting refrain, "Look at these hands/because they're free at last/and now I can dance/now I can laugh."

The lyrics aren't always deep and philosophical, but in the world of pop-punk they don't need to be. With Dennis Manuel playing drums and adding backup vocals and John Hutchins on bass, the power trio have moved from ready-for-radio to ready-for-MTV.

The only down moment comes from a tribute to the late Mr. Buckley, "Goodbye," but Mr. Scheuerman's voice is so sincere it's hard to fault him for slowing up the pace. As an unsigned band, Cactus Patch has hit the second stage at the WHFStival, packed the Black Cat and gained a loyal area following. Savor this local gem (available at shows and through the Web site www.cactuspatch.net) before it becomes a national trend.

Derek Simmonsen


VARIOUS ARTISTS

Desert Roses & Arabian Rhythms

(Mondo Melodia)

This is definitely the coolest new CD out that fuses Arabic music with Western rock.

Although Middle Eastern and American culture are not fusing too well these days, this album provides a nice sampler of styles from artists who have tried to do just that. The third cut, "Aalach Tloumouni," by Algerian artist Khaled, is a nice combo of drums, violins and the oud, a lutelike instrument. The fourth cut, "Inchallah," which means "if Allah wills it," is a Tunisian pop song done in French.

"Chie Begam," the haunting sixth cut by an Iranian-born artist known as Andy, has some great gitar riffs. The lyrics in "Pomegranates," the 10th cut, are a bit corny but the orchestration is superb. The last cut, "Qalantiqa," by Algerian Rachid Taha, is eminently danceable.

Middle Eastern music is an acquired taste. But once you get used to its rhythms and chord progressions, it becomes addicting.

Julia Duin


THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS

Mink Car

(Restless Records)

They Might Be Giants is hopelessly stuck between genius and inanity. Since 1986, the dynamic duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh have created idiosyncratic pop that is intellectually compelling but emotionally void.

The Giants are stylistically omnivorous. "Mink Car" is something of a musical melange, evincing techno, new wave, hip-hop and jazz influences. Their skills as composers have expanded, and their lyrics remain thoughtful, artful and often hilarious. But their music has little sincerity, or few heartfelt moments to strike a chord of pathos.

It's not that they never write about personal topics, but when they do it's through a glass. Ironically, it's shrouded in absurdist imagery. A welcome exception on "Mink" is "Another First Kiss," a rare love song. It's a slow, warm acoustic ballad directed at a human, unlike "Hovering Sombrero," an ode to Hispanic headgear. "You're never only just a hat" is that song's reassuring refrain.

The Giants' geek-chic shtick gets tired quickly. "I've Got a Fang," for example, is repetitive and boring. "Glistening white triangle tooth/open up a can of tomato juice/I've got a fang," he deadpans. "She Thinks She's Edith Head" skewers an old poseur friend but it's not very entertaining. "Man, It's So Loud In Here" lampoons electronica by adopting its thumping drum machines, layered cadences and effects-heavy intonations.

The Giants' irony is best in numbers such as "Hopeless Bleak Despair." The singer is hounded by angst that eventually disappears one day "in an unceremonious way." The comic take on depression is a subtle triumph. "Drink" is one inebriated soul's pleading reproach of another, "I'll take back my pinata, it's wasted on you/Just spinning that pool cue all over the room/And give back the blindfold that's under your shoe/Let's drink, drink, this town is so great."

The band's strength is its willingness to experiment. "Older" features archaic instruments known as a rauschpfeife and sarussophone, certainly a unique pop innovation. The track is a dark-but-peppy rumination on the nature of time: "You're older than you've ever been and now you're even older/and now you're even older" et cetera.

Original darlings of college radio, the Giants never really graduated from their fringe status as something closely resembling a novelty act. But they are very, very good at creating catchy, quirky tunes with undertones of dark humor. And they've branched out the band that began with a daily ditty on an answering machine is now disseminating recordings over the Internet. Not to mention their work with television shows like "The Daily Show," movies like "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" and a collaboration with literary journal McSweeney's.

Bruce Hamilton


THE WHO

Live at Leeds Deluxe Edition

(MCA)

With a powerful spirit of austerity, the Who made the sonic equivalent of a Steinbeckian novel on "Live at Leeds," which first came out in 1970. With just three instruments the time-tested holy trinity of guitar, bass and drums and the angry-young-man pipes of Roger Daltrey, the Who defined rock as it stood in the genre's adolescence.

This is the third issue of this live set, and it has grown each time, from the initial vinyl release through the remastered first CD in 1995 to this, a double CD that features the band performing most of guitarist Pete Townshend's rock opera, "Tommy."

"Tommy" always was overrated, dwarfed by the monumental blasts of later singles, prior youth anthems and the masterpiece "Quadrophenia." The opera's songs on "Live at Leeds," though, become part of the bubbling morass of noisy guitar and brawny vocals.

"Pinball Wizard" becomes punk-rock fury, a 360-degree turn from the sad studio version. Then there are the drums. Keith Moon is among the finest, the undeniable substance of the Who, who delivers a metallic-toned beat with amphetamine fury. He is brilliant on all of this set, and therefore, the entire concert is one of the best ever recorded, loud and frenzied, with guitar fragments spilling from the speaker on the right echoed by the vocals on the left, and all of it roars over the stomp of Mr. Moon and bassist John Entwistle.

The defining moment of this two-plus-hour set is the version of "Substitute," an early hit for the band that had the tame pop appeal of the "British invasion" persuasion. Here, the blurry, feedback-swept guitar gives teeth to the two-minute song.

So it goes, over and over welcome burst of cacophony and beautiful noise injected into melody. This the rarest of the rare, an actual oldie and goodie.

Steve Miller

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