Music Reviews

Trans Am Thing

(Thrill Jockey) Buy it from Insound Rating - 5/10
In rock ‘n’ roll and electronic music, there’s nothing wrong with being totally ridiculous, and few bands understand this better than Washington, D.C.’s Trans Am. This band has been doing its “1970s butt-rock in space” shtick for twenty years now, taking risky stylistic and thematic detours and developing a cult following along the way. The latest release won’t convert many new fans, but that does not appear to be the primary goal. As ambiguous as the title is, this could be the group’s most straightforward, straight-faced collection, but strangely, though it does not lack its share of absurdity, it could use more direction.

Rumor has it (and the band’s press materials semi-seriously suggest) that Thing was supposed to become the original soundtrack to a Hollywood film, and if someone also said that the film was going to be a Coen Brothers remake of Tron, it would have been equally believable. As in a movie score, there are plenty of atmospherics, such the rocket sounds that kick off Please Wait, and thus many of the album’s pleasures lie in anticipation. Some tracks, like Silent Star, barely register as songs, and Heaven’s Gate sounds like an aimless electro-rock version of a Sonic Youth freakout. There are snippets that could have set the mood for opening credits, chase scenes, robot orgy sequences, whatever. That, though, might require context. Or maybe the guys want us to create the scenes for ourselves.

These missteps, though, shouldn’t completely deter newcomers. Arcadia - complete with its synth-funk bass line, Combat Rock-style disco guitar chords, and whispered vocoder chant - is the best Hot Chip instrumental never written. Likewise, Naked Singularity makes good on all the favorable Kraftwerk comparisons with a scuzzy Moog riff over a syncopated five-beat groove that betrays the group’s sophisticated ear for rhythm. No band, to my knowledge, has come closer to creating a new sub-genre of sci-fi stripper pole music.

Bizarre references abound, especially on Maximum Yeild, which, in delivering one of the most out-of-left-field blogosphere in-jokes in recent memory, could have been re-titled Sunn O))) Rewrites the Score to Blade Runner. Maximum novelty yields maximum weirdnes!

During the six-minute finale, Space Dock, the band faithfully returns to the theme of the record’s opening, which gives a cinematic sense of closure. But to what, exactly? The implication is that there was some kind of journey involved in getting from Point A to Point B in Trans Am’s spaceship of Douglas Adams-worthy quirks. But after twelve tracks totaling a brief-seeming thirty eight minutes, and despite some interesting routes, it feels like we’ve barely left the launch pad.