he future is now. Apropos of the collage of chopped up political pundits on the cover of Trans Am’s new record, Liberation, modern living is like a short-circuiting dystrophic wasteland. Political leaders are regularly exposed as cyborg presences with hidden agendas, flying vehicles are running into things all hours of the day, and entire wars are being run on the supposed veracity of a few documents no one can manage to procure. Therefore, one assumes, having found a similarity between the undercurrent of doom that streaked the 80’s like a terribly black racing stripe (See: The Cold War), Trans Am have decided to board their telephone booth-cum-time machine, fast forward musically a decade or two, and warn us all about our imminent self-destruction.
But wait: Weren’t Trans Am a mediocre post-rock band running on the fumes of their own self-importance a mere two years ago? Well, yeah. But tumultuous times invite protest, and in response to the Bush administration’s unpopular obfuscation of facts, Trans Am have recast themselves as a mediocre post-rock band with a political agenda. Friends: believe me when I say that the combination between the two disparate elements–unbearably goofy synth-pop and sub-par commentary on various parties’ political shortcomings–is indeed a deadly one. Whereas past Trans Am releases might be able to coax an unchecked guffaw from me because of the enthusiasm with which they embraced and contorted their genre’s highly impersonal, artificial nature, Liberation is for the most part tepid and ill-conceived. But far from being merely a bad record, this is the kind of soulless aural abomination that ends entire bands...and the sub-genres they more or less jump-started.
"Outmoder" opens within the mechanical whirring of a helicopter. As the spinning blades reach a fever pitch, the noise dissolves into what will be the template for the rest of the album; A small battalion of synths, live and programmed percussion, and paranoid guitar lines duke it out melodic supremacy, resulting in nothing more than a heap of uncoordinated noise. "Uninvited Guest" continues in this vein, though attempts to integrate some legitimate political commentary into the mix. The faint pulse of electronic percussion counts off the measures, as a gilding wave of synthesizers imbues admittedly vacuous comments made by the President with a sinister presence. Epitomized by this track, Trans Am seem torn between their unabashed admiration of the worst of 80s music, and their desire to pull off something high-concept and relevant. It’s hardly successful, but an attempted grasp at relevance is better than none at all.
Though Trans Am effectively approximate a melange of 80s sounds, they do so in a way that sounds joyless, lifeless, and dull. "White Rhino," for instance, encapsulates the tired aesthetic of the band. Again making using of re-contextualized vocal samples (This time of a weatherman describing an incoming storm), plastic synth and guitar melodies, and bombastic drums, the group attempts to instill menace where none exists. The best moments on the album are those in which they abandon their pretensions and instead explore the vagaries of thematic post rock with subtle, vaguely psychedelic melodies. "Pretty Close to the Edge" is a mobius strip of complex drum patterns, ambient guitar textures, and Kraut-like precision. Likewise, "Remote Control" is unique in its use of twinkly keyboard effects and Disco bass-lines to convey a mood other than paranoia.
After listening to Liberation, one hopes for the sake of both the band and its listeners that they either disband and devote their considerable talents to more worthwhile projects, or consider a complete revamping of their sound. Trans Am’s attempted amelioration of their Tongue-in-Cheekiness to small-minded political critique only leads to the band choking on both accounts. Having neither the intelligence to lend credulity to their claims, nor the good-will to continue making enjoyable music, the band have miscalculated a crucial element of their record’s intended significance; the shamelessness of the irony on display here approaches near-anal expulsive depths of indulgence. While I’m entirely open to the conveyance of political ideas through instrumental music (Godspeed You Black Emperor!, at the height of their relevance, did this relatively well), Trans Am’s casts its intricately woven web of source-less paranoia wide, and pulls in nothing.
Reviewed by: Eric Seguy
Reviewed on: 2004-03-05