For over a decade, Trans Am have been continually recontextualizing their unique hybrid of guitar driven anthems and carefully honed electronica. Though their self-titled debut failed to dazzle and only hinted and what was to come, it was their stunning sophomore effort, Surrender to the Night, that showed what they were capable of. Van Halen sized riffs, Aphex Twin worthy knob-twiddling, and unbelievable live percussion were combined to create a sound that definitely warranted the stickered warning that came with album declaring that all distortion was intentional. From there they continued to explore their sound, stripping it down for the paranoid The Surveillance and beefing up the Krautrock quotient for the Kraftwerk referencing Futureworld. But somewhere along the way the band moved from being earnest composers to synth pop ironists. 2002’s nearly unlistenable TA bathed itself in ‘80s references to the point of silliness. Red Line focused too much on the cock part of cock rock while the electronic elements failed to impress. Perhaps in an effort to regain their focus, the band’s last release was the politically charged Liberation whose promo photos featured the band cloaked head to toe in Guantanamo Bay type prison garb, on their knees and handcuffed by the Washington Monument.
It appears Liberation was a fleeting moment of earnestness, as the pointlessly titled Sex Change is a return the latter day Trans Am goofiness that marked their most forgettable outings. The band uses Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies”—random suggestions written down on index cards and used to spur studio creativity—in an effort to open up their own writing. Calling theirs “Obscene Strategies” (ha ha), some of the suggestions included taking a nap, making “it sound like Jackson Brown” or even more cleverly and hilarious, ripping “off black musicians” (whatever that means). The result is an album that more often than not veers into musical ridiculousness, choosing the quick laugh over something more substantial.
Perhaps sensing this, the band chooses to lead off the disc with its two best tracks. “First Words” is a carefully crafted track that blends the formality of Futureworld era Trans Am with clean guitar lines the likes we really haven’t seen from this band before. The song relies on its own mesmerizing propulsion and the group’s solid rhythm section to keep things moving into “North East Rising Sun”. Featuring clean vocals, and again a solid reliance on musicianship, the track is a success even if the lyrics are forgettable. But from here, the album takes a downwards dip that it can’t recover from. “Obscene Strategies”—curiously chosen as the promo track available to listeners via the band’s and record label’s website—is another tired entry in the now-growing catalog of the band’s forays into goofy synth pop. On other tracks, like “Conspiracy of the Gods” and “Tesco vs. Sainsbury’s”, the band reverts to formula with dull results. These guitar driven rockers sound like outtakes from their early albums. It’s all sizzle and no steak. Somewhere in the second half of the disc is another beautiful number, “4,738 Regrets” but it’s not worth working through the remaining smirking tracks and squandered opportunities (“Exit Management Solution”) to find it.
Ultimately, Trans Am can’t seem to provide the thrills they did when they first arrived. Bands such as Ratatat and !!! have taken the possibilities of blending rock ‘n’ roll and electronic music to further spaces, while Trans Am is still going over the same territory they mined over ten years ago. I’m uncertain why Trans Am seemingly feels the need to goof on their incredible musical ability. But until they can again embrace their talent completely, Sex Change is a novelty, and I guess by the band’s current standards, a success.
// Notes from the Road
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