Why does it sometimes seem that putting musicians in a room full of guitars and drums inevitably brings out their dark, brooding instincts while a similar setup consisting of analog synths and other sundry electronics can make people lose such pretensions to the point where they actually seem like they’re enjoying themselves? Maybe it’s the giddy excitement of having so many knobs to twiddle. Maybe it’s being freed from the influence of so many “guitar heroes”. Maybe it’s a desire to subvert technology from its more pragmatic uses. In the case of Trabant it may just be that the owner’s manuals didn’t come in Icelandic. Whatever the case, Þorvaldur Gröndal and Viðar Hákon Gíslason (who have christened their collaboration in honor of the utilitarian East German automobile) have produced an album that has more in common with a sly nudge and a playful wink rather than an earnest (yet mind numbingly dull) soul baring confessional. And in my book that’s a good thing.
From the opening strands of “Enter Spacebar” it becomes clear that the lack of sunshine around the Arctic Circle may be getting to these boys. The premier track is what I wish I’d been able to make my Casiotone and Speak & Spell sound like between after school episodes of Degrassi Junior High and Square Pegs. Chugging rhythms punctuated by wheezing bursts of white noise rendered both whimsical and funky. “Org Org” adds some funhouse organ and ridiculously twangy guitar that would make Ennio Morricone a proud man while still retaining its ass shaking groove. “Moment of Truth” begins as a wistful pop tune before sweeping strings give it an epic stroke. “Bluesbreaker”, the first of the album’s three vocal tracks (which incidentally has nothing to do with John Mayall) shuffles along like Beck putting together the best car crash song since “Warm Leatherette”.
“Bahama Banana” should serve as an example of how to properly handle a Vocoder. Unfortunately the song is built around the sort of pun that it’s only possible to find amusing if English is your second language (see also Super Furry Animals’ “Receptacle for the Respectable”) which then pushes its luck even further by overstaying its already tenuous welcome (to wit “So bahama mewanna go / Find som’ money, do the ho / aloha included, daddyo / banana’s in business-stereo”). Moment of Truth does have its share of throwaway songs (full minute of ambient noise “Pre-pop-loop”, the adolescent guitar workout of “Old Elgar”, and the what-the-hell-button-did-I-just-push “Traktor Intro”) that it seems were pulled from the Recycle Bin at the last minute but if the second half of the disc isn’t as inspired as the first (“Happy Sunny Song” is anything but) it’s worth noting that even at their worst Trabant still manage to sound more distinctive than the majority of their peers. Eventually though, “Superman” comes to save the day and ends the album by gliding in on a sound as pure and fluffy as Reykjavík snow.
Somewhere between Air’s suave and Beck’s spaz, Trabant have carved out a comfortable niche for their own brand of quirky electronica. Oh, and if you happen to see their alter egos, country band the Funerals, holed up in a room full of guitars somewhere let me know if my theory holds up.