n paper, Trans Am are a music lover’s fantasy. From lampooning classic rock, to floor-stomping with Jesus Lizard-style bass bulldozers, to spinning paranoid Atari electronica, to pumping Krautrock rhythms—these are the ideas that record geeks sit around, dream about, and then typically go apeshit over when they’re stoned. At the time, they sound awesome; then the morning arrives, the plan gets executed, and you wonder why in the hell it doesn’t sound nearly as good as you thought it would the night before. Which brings us to Trans Am’s basic dilemma: that, hypothetically, they should be the best band in the whole world but somehow end up being a halfway decent instrumental trio.
That’s not to say that they haven’t put out some choice sides. On the contrary, the string of albums from their self-titled debut to the expansive, swirling Red Line all had their kicks. But once they’d reached the monotonous and predictable ’80s sendup T.A., the novelty had worn off. Then, for some reason, they decided that it was time to be taken seriously, resulting in the Negativland/Psychic TV-inspired political collage Liberation, which had as much spark as a wet paper towel. It seemed that the D.C. boys had lost sight of what made their music worthwhile in the first place.
For Sex Change’s recording process, Trans Am did a play on Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies exercise, dubbed “Obscene Strategies,” in which they randomly selected note cards with messages inscribed upon them to directing their recording process. But where Eno’s flowery egotism suggested “Twist the spine” or “Remember those quiet evenings,” Trans Am followed “Take a Nap” and “Pillow Fight!!”
Ironically, it isn’t that much different from most of Trans Am’s other albums. Like Red Line or even T.A., Sex Change is comprised of cheesy instrumental jams that return to their previous obsessions with Krautrock, classic rock, hair metal, synth-pop, and NES soundtracks. It’s likewise united by a common thread, a sonic template that ties the album together even as they venture off into different areas of music. In that respect, it’s a return to form.
But to say that Sex Change is like every other Trans Am album is a considerable oversight—it’s a full-blown acceptance of soft rock, world music, disco, and pop-metal. For the most part, it works. The concept-referencing “Obscene Strategies” is dance music that could have come off of Mylo’s Destroy Rock N’ Roll; and “4,738 Regrets,” with its propulsive, mid-level drums and AOR guitar, is so uncharacteristically gorgeous it’s shocking. Even the ferocious guitar line of “Shining Path” is tenderized by a vocal-setting keyboard. In the process of shedding some of the most prominent aspects of their standard, and through embracing stereotypically cheesy music instead of lampooning it, Trans Am have made the most Trans Am-sounding record since releasing The Red Line nearly seven years ago.
Sex Change won’t change your life. Like Trans Am’s late-90s material, this album is enjoyable without being astonishing. Many of the tracks will likely play in the background of snowboarding videos, and diehards will find more than plenty to keep them satisfied. Nevertheless, Sex Change somehow finds a cause for celebration, as it rejuvenates the trio in a way that’s completely unexpected. Even though they haven’t translated their concepts into wondrous exaltations, my advice is to stop analyzing their post-schlock cock rock and accept it for the big, fun, stupid music that it is.
Reviewed by: Tal Rosenberg
Reviewed on: 2007-02-23