A Quasi show's never exactly fun. Heartbreaking singalongs of relationship's end from a famously divorced couple becomes sorta morbid at the best of times, and at a Quasi show at the non-smoking, lightly drinking, suburb-friendly Crystal Ballroom last Friday night, a very specific following was present. There was something of a foreign-film audience huddled beneath hoodies, ironic caps, purposeless eyewear; the few who dared dance may as well have been fucking in the cathedral from the assembled glares.

Not the perfect venue, and the bill challenged moods. Openers the Minders employ difficult instrumentation to achieve a British Invasion pop prettiness; the Swords Project's orchestrated chaos defies easy context; but the Thermals' garage bursts should already be strolling down MTV2, hooks absently falling from pockets like so much loose change.

The grand mosaic of Portland music available that night was less than the sum of its parts, all made depressingly evident upon Quasi's encore. In one of those tense, uncertain, failed stabs at communal soul, Sam Coomes brought all the members of all the bands on stage while shouting encouragement that "the words don't matter!" For Quasi, that's just not true.

The band's peculiar magic depends upon intricate lyrics, equally crude and elegant, unbearably tragic if they weren't quite so clever. All this delivered through Coomes' fractured tones--an inimitable, ever-shifting, urgent plea drifting toward the ballsy falsetto of the Martin/Yorke crowd and suddenly fading to static. It's a tremulous quake balanced against the husky vocals of drummer Janet Weiss that neatly matches the duo's dynamic instrumental interplay.

Coomes began the show on guitar, and there were actual cheers as he sat down to the organ. Tricky rock vehicle, the keyboards--blue notes strain credibility and a slump's inevitable--but Coomes can unfurl the emotive potential with a note-perfect aural breakdown that sloshes tumescent around Weiss' insistent, immaculate rhythms. That disparity between his practiced desperation and her violent indifference defines Quasi.

Coomes wasn't in best voice, wildly off-key at times. Crowd murmurs faded to open chatter, and anyone who hadn't already memorized the 1998 album Featuring Birds (by far the minority) stopped pretending attention. And, then, when Weiss, his ex-wife, tenderly helped Coomes through the trouble notes of "Never Want To See You Again"--and think about that for a second--the unaffected loveliness justified the cultish fanbase with throat-tightening finality. A million bands can arouse, can inspire thoughts of love; rare's the act that makes a painful separation seem the ultimate romance.