Trans Am: Liberation

Tim Stelloh

Trans Am


Label: Thrill Jockey
US Release Date: 2004-02-17
UK Release Date: 2004-02-16

Like most other Trans Am records, Liberation is a soundtrack. Washington, DC, the war on terror, a Krautrock prelude to an election year -- take your pick, they're all there. Unlike the trio's previous five discs, Liberation's concept is as painfully forthright as George W.'s State of the Union. What makes the record work, however, is that it avoids the pitfall of many a protest song: lyrics.

By relying on textures, collage, soundbites, and sparse, abstract vocals instead of the typical Michael Moore-esque rant, the record is actually engaging, and not just another head-to-the-wall regurgitation of The Nation. The opening cut, "Outmoder", could easily be in a Guy Ritchie flick (or maybe a BMW commercial); it's got the feel of a chase scene, and, kind of like the liner notes photo of the guy in Air Force garb standing in front of the Washington Monument, it gives an immediate, ironic critique of "liberation".

This is one of the greatest things about the record. It rocks, it gets downright beautiful, but it never feels liberated. "Liberation" is one of those euphemisms like "development" or "freedom" that Bush has said 50 gazillion times since he's been in office. Most of us believe in these things (I hope), but what the hell do they mean anymore? I don't know, Trans Am doesn't know, and George W. Bush doesn't know. This is the state of confusion Trans Am is working with. One minute they rock Fucking Champs-style melodies over huge, DJ Shadow-sounding drum patterns ("June"), the next they're copping bass lines from the Cure's Faith phase ("Music for Dogs"). They choke acoustic flourishes with a lockstep 808 ("Pretty Close to the Edge"); they sample some guy's diatribe about the propaganda war perpetrated on both sides of the Atlantic, and cut the beat exactly as he says "but this is war …". It's a creepy preface to a helicopter sample that fades in a few seconds later.

Nothing captures the group's political affectations like "Uninvited Guest". Trans Am flawlessly spliced together a Bush speech using Pro-Tools, and pasted it over a Planet Rock-sounding beat. Bush says things like "Our commitment to weapons of mass destruction is America's tradition . . . (applause) . . . In the battle of Iraq we destroyed hospitals and schools . . . (applause)". At which point a devil voice fades in behind W's, shadowing him for the rest of the track. It ends with an apocalyptic Bushism: "We have witnessed the arrival of a new era, the beginning of the end of America".

Few art rockers make their political gripes known. Trans Am, however, has made a political record as grand, explicit, and opaque as Radiohead's Hail to the Thief. It's a sonic paradox crammed with electro diddle, quasi-metal, and angular, DC-style post-punk. Musically, Liberation is nothing new for Trans Am, but conceptually, it's one of the trio's tightest, most fluid efforts to date.

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