Chicago's TRS-80 is named after an old Radio Shack computer from the '80s that had the mental capacity of a pocket calculator and wasn't very useful for anything outside of typing your term paper. And it didn't even do that very well. But it was a lovable little machine for its time, and it now holds the same nostalgic value as an Atari ringer T. It's also an apt metaphor for this Windy City trio.
Made up of members Kent Rayhill, Deb Schimmel, and drummer Jay Rajeck, TRS-80 mixes breakbeat, IDM, hip-hop, downtempo, and wild electro rhythms with searingly glitchy analog synths and found sounds. The resulting noise is somewhere between DJ Shadow and Boards of Canada, but with a whimsically playful edge, and a delightful sense of pacing and style. Make no mistake about it, this music has two natural habitats: either to be heard live at a seedy bar (they play out often in Chicago at venues like the Empty Bottle) or to be listened to via headphones whilst doing some kind of work on a computer. There are lots of albums that fall into the latter category these days, and many of them can be happily ignored while going about your business. But the best of them, frustratingly, pull you out of your worker's fog every five minutes or so with some astoundingly capable melody, or outrageous synth sound. TRS-80 manages to do both of these things, at alarmingly frequent intervals, throughout their long playing fourth album, Shake Hands with Danger.
Now let me begin by saying that I was initially quite skeptical of reviewing this album as I've just about had my fill of the "put-on-and-ignore" albums. I had just recently listened to and enjoyed Plaid's latest, Spokes, while also realizing that I would probably never give the record more than one or two more listens throughout my entire life, and it would then be left sitting in a collection next to three or four other Plaid albums. All good, but none of them need to be heard and heard again like a good pop song does. So, I was prepared to use TRS-80 as my sounding board for the dismissal of this new disposable music that, although innovative and decent all around, had no place in the great canon of popular music. And I won't even go so far as to say that TRS-80 changed my mind on the matter. This record probably does not have a place in the canon, but it quite simply, kicks ass, in many meaningful ways. Plainly put: I wanted to dismiss it and I couldn't, because it's just really, really good.
Shake Hands with Danger never lets you grow bored. Things start off with a DJ Shadow-style breakbeat that towers over the proceedings and builds up quite a head of steam. The track's called "Chris Evans" and as I didn't know of anyone named Chris Evans, I decided that a Google search was in order. I turned up this poem, by Chris Evans:
My Poem about Frogs
By Cliff Evans
I like frogs,
They sit on great, big logs.
They jump real high,
Up to the sky.
I wish I could jump high like a frog.
Now, I don't know if "Chris Evans" is named after the man that penned that poem, but it made me all the more excited to delve into the record. Every song thereafter had its own unique groove and exciting texture; from the Theremin-like vocals of "Air Mass" to the huge stabs of church organ in "Phantom Power", down through the vomit-like splurge of broken beats and shattering electronics in "Hand over Fist" to the full-fledged Van Halen rawk guitar riffs in "Motoki", TRS-80 laces the entire affair with excitement, energy, flair, and a passion for experimentalism and warped sounds.
There are two mainstays that keep all these disparate elements together, however. One of them is the insanely warped, crackled, and fried analog synth tones that stretch, splat, convulse and burst to thrilling effect in almost every cut. There are no static repeating synth lines and lazy rhythms here, every melody and sound is abused to the highest degree and every savory ounce of glitched electronica comes shattering out of the speakers. It's all terribly exciting. Second, is the fabulous drumming Jay Rajeck. Imagine a live drummer that sounds like DJ Shadow's huge, cavernous beats from "Midnight in a Perfect World", but even more cut up and chopped. I don't quite know how TRS-80 are doing it (possibly sampling the live drums and then manipulating them later), but whatever they're doing, it's effective. The drums are the glue that holds this whole crazy mess together.
Although the album drags a bit on the last couple cuts, the thrilling 50 minutes that lead up to that are so stunning that it's hard to quibble. TRS-80 just made a mad, crazy little LP, and if you like your "put-on-and-ignore" music to be challenging and counterproductive to your work environment, then give this one a shot. You just may fall in love.