American Gong is frustrating. It’s not a bad album by far, based on the usual criteria one arranges on the bar graph of goodness: it’s melodic, paced well, pleasant and so on. At the same time, however, there’s nothing that marks it as unique in any real way or different from any Quasi album of the past: same existential themes, same harmonies, same roxichord. Gong really brings up the question that should plague anyone listening to a band that creates music over a long period of time: what should one expect from an artist as time goes on? Should we as listeners expect them to change? Should we expect them to play their same game over and over? Does a unique game grow boring after the nth iteration? Whose fault is it then: the audience for expecting the same thing from the artist or the artist for feeding their audience the same thing? It’s a baffling, vicious circle.
Quasi made a name for themselves with these bleak, Sartrean pop songs that heavily featured lead singer/songwriter Sam Coomes’ roxichord, an overdriven harpsichord-like keyboard. The fin-de-siècle pair Featuring “Birds” and Field Studies were probably the best or most noteworthy, or at least the albums that brought them greater acclaim. That Coomes’ ex-wife and (now former) Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss was in the band helped keep the tedious tongues of the rock press wagging, but their combination of desolation and pop was powerful without the added gossip. The acclaim was rightly deserved.
If that’s true – and this is a problem I constantly find myself in – then what’s wrong with doing that over and over and over again? As I argued in my review of Built to Spill’s latest album, there should be nothing wrong with a certain artist playing a unique aesthetic game repeatedly. The problem lies in repetition of the drearily uncreative artists who continually play Groundhog’s Day with whatever boring or clichéd tropes they started out with, not bands like Quasi. Yet, at the same time, American Gong just feels tired. It doesn’t feel like Coomes, Weiss and bassist Joanna Bolme are really having fun, and perhaps the added caveat should be that playing a certain aesthetic game over and over is only problematic if the game-players turn it into a rote activity free of discovery.
Think about it like this. Two comedians go one stage. Both have polished, professional acts that they’ve honed for months, night after night. For one, the act is still fun though, and she plays with it and makes it feel spontaneous, even if it is determined right down to the very last beat. The other stand-up, however, just goes through the motions. The act may still be funny, but there is a certain energy lacking, a certain lethargy that pervades it. American Gong is like this. It is certainly a pleasant album, but it contains a sluggish energy that inundates each and every crevasse.