Along with Tortoise and Stereolab, Trans Am helped usher in the post-rock movement of the mid-’90s. Like their peers, the primarily instrumental Washington DC band — Phil Manley (guitar, keyboards, bass), Nathan Means (bass, keyboards) and Sebastian Thomson (drums, bass, guitar) — circumvented rock’s preeminence in the indie subculture by tapping into such (formerly unhip) source material as prog, metal and ’80s film scores. But while Stereolab and Tortoise approached such realms academically, Trans Am initially wore their influences with a smirk.
Stripped of its context, the irony of Trans Am is less apparent as time passes. Only goofy song titles and the blatant use of cheesy Casio sounds on “Firepoker” and “American Kooter” reveal the self-awareness which, in hindsight, was probably more necessity than conscious decision. On its debut, Trans Am assuredly blasts through eleven instrumentals which peel away the pomposity and fluff of early Van Halen, leaving behind only the propulsive swagger. The band uses their Casio sparingly, and the emphasis is on melody, precision and rhythm.
All of that changed on Surrender to the Night, a far more experimental album that relies heavily on analog synthesizers, studio gimmickry and electronic drums to convey an array of influences and ideas. With the infinitely expressive textures of newly acquired equipment, the group wholeheartedly dives into electronica (in a retro, ’80s way of course), taking cues from dub, electro and drum ‘n’ bass on overtly funky songs like “Love Commander” and “Night Dancing.” The majestic guitar leads of opener “Motr” and the searing “Carboforce” are the only reminders of the debut’s sound. The diversity makes for a far more interesting album, but also allows for greater missteps. With a thin Casio beat and hinky guitar playing, “Illegalize It” sounds straight from an ’80s porn soundtrack, while “Zero Tolerance” veers towards white noise.
On The Surveillance, Trans Am wipes away the smirk with a swift kick to the face. “Armed Response” straps an overdriven Steve Albini guitar riff to drums that pound like a herd of elephants. Gone are the cheeky genre exercises, replaced with a more confident mix of straightforward electro jams like “Home Security” and the triumphant, high-energy rocker that follows it. This is definitely as close to Slint and June of 44 as Trans Am comes. For fans of the serious-minded Trans Am, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Futureworld heralds a return to nostalgia, but with a distinctly Teutonic edge. The sax intro of “1999” pays homage to early Kraftwerk’s avant-garde leanings, while songs like “Television Eyes” lean heavily on that same group’s more mature works like Trans-Europe Express. The trio even goes so far as to add vocals, although the heavily processed, robotic singing takes a back seat to the grooves that nearly imprison these songs with their droning insistence.
Claustrophobia is eradicated from Red Line, a sprawling career summary of Trans Am’s myriad obsessions, culminating in “I Want it All,” a dancefloor winner with just the right combination of the band’s trademarks: robotron vocals, a simple synth riff, a jaw-dropping disco beat. “Play for Summer,” with the band’s first non-processed vocals, also hits pretty hard. Elsewhere, the trio stretches out on ambient mood-pieces like the baffling “Village in Bubbles” and the psychedelic, spacious noise of “For Now and Forever.” If Futureworld is a futuristic cityscape, then Red Line is the Interstate going through Kansas.
Reportedly bitter at their lack of embrace by the electroclash crowd, Trans Am tried on the sound of eye-shadow-and-hair-gel for the limp, euro-trash TA. Sounding at times like Duran Duran, or worse, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Trans Am either skewers mid-’80s dance pop or succumbs to it. It’s hard to tell. Worse, the songs beneath the priggish irony of “Molecules” and “You Will Be There” are poorly written and forgettable. Only “Bonn” and “Party Station” sound like the Trans Am of yore, but here it hardly matters.
Few would have imagined Trans Am politicized, but Liberation is proof of it, a reflection of the nation’s dire situation after 9/11. Against the tense, pulsing backdrop of “Uninvited Guest,” Trans Am juxtaposes reconfigured samples of President Bush: “Operation Iraqi Freedom is carried out with a combination of lies and intimidation the enemy did not expect and the world has not seen before.” The effect is chilling, a stark contrast to the goofy party vibe of TA. This same sense or urgency pervades the remainder of this album, as Trans Am successfully incorporates Negativland-like sound-collage techniques into the usual mix of muscular grooves and retro-futuristic synth lines. The only difference is that the sense of dread the band once used as a gimmick now seems frighteningly genuine.