DC's synth-rock pranksters turn their gaze skyward... and manage to keep a straight face for once.
After a three-year hiatus, Washington, DC’s standard bearers of tongue-in-cheek synth-rock have returned with Thing, a record that shows they may have finally outgrown flippancy after all. Or least they've found a way to showcase their sc-fi obsession without getting embarrassed about it.
Trans Am has always been a brand built on irony, a band whose “ZZ Top gets sponsored by Casio” shtick made them all the more unique in the Dischord-dominated local scene of the 1990s, when journal entries passed for lyrics and dancing, it seemed, was the last anyone would ever consider doing to music. By the early '00s, however, the band found bits and pieces of their sound co-opted by electroclash/dance punk/new new wave scensters. Their response was TA, a 2002 release that set out to skewer Spin-fueled '80s nostalgia, but went horribly wrong, with the band rocking white jumpsuits and chains. It proved that cliché plus cliché do not a parody make. When they followed it up two years later with Liberation, their stab at a “political” (read: Bush bashing) record, it seemed as if this was a band that had irrevocably lost its way.
Lucky then that with their latest, Trans Am, a band for which every album is a concept album, has once again found a theme worth pursuing: space. Thing opens with the sound of thrusting engines and Space Odyssey-style strings before launching quite literally into the epic, if menacing, space ark funk of “Black Matter.” The song is evidence that the band has quite rightly entered a new decade by giving up on snarky song titles and subtext. For the first time in recent memory, the trio is focusing strictly on what propelled them to underground greatness in the first place, instrumentals that dost rock, and have seemingly kept a straight face while doing it to boot.
Trans Am’s recent stab at videogame scoring (for 2007’s After Burner: Black Falcon) may have seemed like just a PSP payday to some, but here that experience seems to have served the band well. In fact, some of Thing’s more subdued set pieces, like “The Silent Star” and “Bad Vibes”, recall John Carpenter’s iconic themes for Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York and, yes, The Thing. Coincidence? Possibly, but even Trans Am, in a press piece disguised as an interview on the Thrill Jockey website, concede, jokingly or not, that Thing began as a “soundtrack for a Hollywood sci-fi film". After giving the record a few spins in its entirety, it isn’t hard to picture the summer blockbuster that might have resulted.
Two of the album’s standout songs, “Naked Singularity” and “Arcadia”, project the sexy guitar sizzle of A Certain Ratio through the machine-minded lens of Daft Punk for tunes that, while maybe not single-worthy, would do well to ratchet up the action during a CGI star battle. Meanwhile, the midpoint of Thing, “Heaven’s Gate”, is a six-minute trip into the kind of laser-guided psychedelia usually reserved for Acid Mothers Temple. It provides the type of end-of-first-act, all-is-lost timbre necessary for any sci-fi saga. (This song is one to look for at the band’s widely hailed live shows, to be sure.)
Of course, none of this would be possible without some nimble musicianship on the band’s part. Thing may be Trans Am’s eighth full-length release, but it’s their densest yet. For a record that clocks in at just under 40 minutes, that’s perhaps its greatest success of all. Even in their finest moments, the band has always coated their work with an ample layer of cheese. Here, they’ve forgone it to lighten their load skyward. The result may not be entirely substantive. It’s a rock record “about” space, after all. But it’s a redeeming step in the right direction for a band that’s left us feeling burned on more than one occasion.