Quasi and Wheat

Quasi
Field Studies
Up

Wheat
Hope and Adams
Sugar Free

POP GROUPS HAVE set sour lyrics to sweet melodies ever since John Lennon started airing his dirty laundry three decades ago, but few sustain a lemon-lime tone as consistently engaging as Quasi and Wheat do. Both bands have new albums that are brighter than their predecessors, though that still leaves the mood a few gray tones short of pitch-black on the color wheel.

Quasi's fourth album, Field Studies, finds divorced couple Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes mustering a Beatlesesque sound that's bitterly entertaining rather than entertainingly bitter, a small but telling distinction for Elliot Smith's sometime backup band. Coomes's roller-rink organ is now softened with strings, Velvets guitar drone, and his soft vaudeville vocal turns. Moonlighting Sleater-Kinney drummer Weiss contributes the wistful "Two by Two," a song lyrically simpler and wiser than Coomes's self-flagellating monologues about self-doubt. "Your call never came," she sings, "I wish it would/So I could have something to remember you by besides...how not to feel anything."

The gap between her emotional intelligence and his is closing, though. Coomes's plaintive "The Star You Left Behind" actually comes within sight of a tenderness that's not completely undercut by self-pity. "The problems that you made/Eventually will fade," he sings, "and the work that you have done/Seems better when you're gone."

By contrast, Wheat's Hope and Adams makes such glumness sound like so many variations on "She Loves You." It couldn't have been hard for the band to muster more energy than they did on the 1997 debut, Medeiros, a concoction of layered guitars and lo-fi goofing that sounded like Red House Painters covering "Whiter Shade of Pale" while logy on over-the-counter cold medication. This effort still finds Scott Levesque combining Paul Westerberg's rasp with Todd Rundgren's bile in every resentful syllable, but the backdrop is a mix of guitar shimmer and synthesizer chirp that comes off like a crabby New Order.

Levesque's lyrical approach has grown less caustic, too. Instead of crooning, say, "My precious little whore" (on "Death Car"), he emits this charming couplet: "Your love is like a parking lot/With potholes and faded lines/And the kids don't hang/Because the cops just chase them out" (on "San Diego"). Let the healing of the male ego begin.

 
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