By: Eric Greenwood
After the giant step backwards that was its fifth album, Red Line, Trans Am tossed aside any pretense of seriousness in favor of a full-on, retro-mock-rock schtick. The band's collective tongue is planted so firmly in its cheek nowadays that the gratuitous bulge is almost as obnoxious as the music itself. Trans Am has aped its way into the hearts of nerdy post-rock aficionados the world over, and that's no easy task. It takes great skill to rip off musicians as skillfully as Trans Am has done and continues to do. TA is Trans Am's stab at the 1980's. The irony is as thick as the fog in the "Don't You Want Me (Baby)" video, but the homage is so precise and meticulously honed that there has to be some sincerity deep down there somewhere.
The words "New Order" might as well flash in bright neon lights behind Trans Am as it plays "Cold War", as Peter Hook's oft-imitated bass style is in full effect here. The sequencers are blaring and the drums are as bombastic as the ones in "The Wild Boys" by Duran Duran. Vocals are Trans Am's newly acquired weakness. The band successfully avoided confronting the microphone for no less than three albums, two of which are essential listening (Surrender To The Night and The Surveillance, respectively). That can of worms was cracked open on its triumphant fourth album, Futureworld, although, the voice was cleverly disguised by a vocoder (thank you, Kraftwerk). Truth be told, the vocals on "Cold War" are the best on TA, but with each successive song, the vocal shortcomings become more and more apparent.
"Molecules" is so B-grade 1980's that it's frightening. Is this The Fixx? Textured yet sparing guitars play background roles to programmed sequencers and aggressive mechanical beats. The vocals are breathy and exasperated, as they squeeze out every ounce of panache the group can possibly muster. The joke continues on "Run With Me", but the group manages to keep its poker face intact. The bass/drum interaction is the first clue that this is indeed Trans Am. Pummeling yet melodic, the bass line drives this post-punk dance number with the band's patented rhythmic precision. "Basta" sounds like something Ween left off The Pod with its Spanish chorus and primitive, repetitive drum pattern. As a song, it's little more than a distraction; however, it briefly pulls off the 1980's mask.
"Different Kind Of Love" is the highlight of this frustratingly fetishistic and narrow-minded album. It's a playful duet with a guest female vocalist, replete with warm retro synths, bouncy funk rhythms, and the requisite effects-laden saxophone solo. The syncopated beats sound like dirty sex, if that makes any sense. And the cold, monotone vocal delivery recalls early 1980's synth-pop like The Human League and Missing Persons. Trans Am does have an air of pop sophistication, but it too often sacrifices songwriting for technical accuracy. "You Will Be There" borrows heavily from Gary Numan's robotic playbook, but, again, Trans Am doesn't have the vocal personality to pay proper tribute. The production sounds authentic, but the songwriting can't support the sub-par vocals.
"Party Station" drops the 1980's schtick in favor Futureworld-style dynamics, and it saves the album from sinking into utter parody by simply holding your attention. There's substance to the groove in "Positive People", and the burst of energy couldn't have come any sooner. Despite the vocals, this is the Trans Am you know and used to love. "Afternight" is a brooding guitar instrumental that wouldn't have been out of place on the band's debut. It slowly builds into a taut, explosive cacophony. Just like the old days, eh? "C Sick" is another dark instrumental. Layers of synths float amidst cold, power-driven beats. The sparse vocals are unobtrusive here, serving more as a moody complement than a primary instrument. "Infinite Wavelength" closes TA on an aggressive note with vocoder, robotic rhythms, and hypnotic repetition in full effect, but it's too little too late.
Trans Am crumbles under the weight of its own ambitiousness. If it would spend as much energy writing good songs as it does making the songs that it does write sound like someone else's, then it might be able to build some momentum. As it is now, TA hardly represents quality output. It's a deliberate joke. And it's a joke that gets old fast. The band couldn't even sustain the 1980's schtick for the entire course of an album. Only half of it winks at you. The remainder rests on it laurels. Granted, those laurels are more productive that the retro ironic pose, but that's nothing to hang an album on. Trans Am has six albums under its belt. Three of them are indispensable. This is not one of them.