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Trans Am – California Hotel

Thrill Jockey

Trans Am - California HotelOf all the so-called post-rock bands of the 1990s, Trans Am are one which can be relied upon to remain intriguing and interesting some quarter-century or so later. Completed in the week after the 2016 US presidential election, California Hotel (named in honour of the late Glen Frey of The Eagles, who died that year) still bursts with more energy and excitement than many far younger groups can manage, a feat which they have consistently demonstrated at their blistering live shows.

Why do Trans Am still work, and so well too? Far too many fantastic bands burn themselves out after three or four albums, never mind the number of excellent LPs that the trio of Phil Manley, Nathan Means and Sebastian Thomson have put out over the years. One answer lies in their seemingly boundless enthusiasm for what they do, rarely churning out songs by the numbers while still remaining identifiably themselves.

Part of this is due to each musician having their own signature sound, but undoubtedly theirs is also a chemistry that comes from their collective endeavours rather than from the result of summing parts and counting tickboxes. So while a number like “Staying Power” can blister with a DC hardcore guitar-bass-drums dynamism, the following “Ship Of The Imagination” or the title track can reference John Carpenter and the elevating power of just enough (not too much) chorus pedal on the lead six-string widdling. Trans Am seem just so gleeful when sliding into the sort of arpeggiated keyboard line and uncurling synth swirls that hark back to the earliest days of their groundbreaking mashup sound where synths were as much a prominent stage instrument as the guitars.

Let’s not forget that once upon a time, such a combination was virtually tantamount to miscegenation in the purist punk rock scene; what’s now a commonplace was in the hands of Trans Am a revelation to the US underground in some quarters (a heterodox concept that fellow travellers such as Salaryman were as instrumental in spreading around the same time). It’s remarkable how fresh this still seems, even when the skyscraper fretwork on “Alles Verboten” wanders off to scrawl its own way among the trademark curt vocoder utterances, and here it’s quite instructive to compare and contrast with the similarly out-there proggish explorations that the equally resilient and still-engaging His Name Is Alive have recently unleashed from the heart of the atom.

So while there’s an element of lighter-waving cheeriness to, say, “California Hotel”, with its major-key uplift and propulsive rhythm, there are moments of profoundly melancholic misanthropy such as the sublimely miserablist “I Want 2b Ignored”. With its entirely vocoded lyrics outlining just why the song’s moody narrator would prefer to cut himself off from the rest of a shoddy world “locked behind a door”, it’s after all because he “wants 2b with you… don’t you know?” This combination of heartfelt romanticism with bitter cynicism is expressed with such verve and emotional immediacy that it’s difficult to not sway along to the plangent chords and bouncy sequencer loop. Moreover, who could argue with the sentiment, at least on occasion, in a time of great change and apparent global chaos?

Even as they fade out on the cyclical instrumental electronica of “Rules Of Engagement”, Trans Am still keep things interesting, Thomson’s percussive dexterity flickering among the rippling keyboards and bass kick drops in a finale that is both heavy and laced with melodic tranquillity. California Hotel is the sound of a band keeping on keeping on, and doing so with a certain amount of gusto and a keen ear for when not to go too far; what else could they do, given the circumstances?

-Richard Fontenoy-

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