Disillusionment has never sounded as good as it does on "Field Studies," Quasi's fourth album and the first since last year's critically hailed "Featuring 'Birds.'" The band's two members, drummer Janet Weiss and keyboardist/clavichordist Sam Coomes, are famously (at least in indie circles) divorced, so it shouldn't be surprising that they know something about soured expectations and snatched-away dreams. The difficulty, of course, is wrenching appealing and interesting music from such a tortured theme. But the two of them are a smart pair who understand that if disappointment can be a pernicious damning force, it can also be fodder for irony and even amused exasperation.
"Field Studies" captures every shade of Quasi, from disquieting sadness to comic relief, all with spare instrumentation and florid melodies. The funny stuff includes "Fable With No Moral," on which Coomes, who sounds a bit like a cross between Matthew Sweet and Freedy Johnston, offers to sell his soul. He gets no takers until Satan rides by in a Land Rover: "He saw what I was doing and said, 'That's not yours to sell/ You'll get your check tomorrow and I'll see your ass in Hell.'"
But Coomes is also a first-class moper who isn't ready to let himself, or anyone else for that matter, off the hook. On "All the Same," he lets loose his bleak worldview: "You worship the future like it's some kind of saint/ But it's just like the past with a new coat of paint." And on the H|sker D|-ish "It Don't Mean Nothing," Coomes simply repeats the title over and over. That must mean something -- and it doesn't sound very hopeful.
Weiss, better known as one-third of punk-pop trio Sleater-Kinney, is a vital, driving force as a drummer here and makes the most of her rare singing duties as well. On "Two by Two," she takes the listener on a dreamy, somnolent journey that recalls Lida Husik during her "Joyride" days.
Musically, "Field Studies" is by far the most expressive of Quasi's records. Coomes may be a dour songwriter, but his and Weiss' record about disappointment is much more than just a gloomy recapitulation.