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LPs from the Attic: Trans Am — Liberation

February 15, 2010

Back Pages

In Back Pages, Jay shares reviews and notes on all matters musical from his personal archives. In this installment, Jay offers a review of D.C.-based Trans Am’s 2004 barn-burner foray into political post-rock. Jay’s feelings? Mixed, but skewed positive. How does it rank among *your* favorites in their excellent discography, Reader and Tweeder?

Trans Am — Liberation (Thrill Jockey, 2004)

We don’t want to sanitize the war. Some people would like to make the war as something easy for people to live with and accept.

If there was ever an excuse for nuclear war, it’s Washington, D.C.

–soundbites from “WASHINGTONDC”

From the fractured mosaic of images culled from the current sociopolitical landscape on display on the album cover to the title itself, Trans Am make no attempt to hide their intent on their latest Thrill Jockey release. Always game to genre-hop musically (from noise experimentalism to prog-tinged rock), it seems that with the release of Liberation, Trans Am aim to catapult themselves into Big-League-Statement-Maker territory. As such, they take a decidedly Radiohead (Hail to the Thief)/Super Furry Animals (Phantom Power) approach and have created an electro-rock album that ably communicates the band’s anxieties, frustrations, and animosities, replete with demonically-enhanced Dubya soundbites, Pro-Tools-manipulated speeches that relay the “real” underlying aims of the W administration, and tension-rich song structures. Which isn’t to say that the band manages to pull it off with the same success or inspiration as those two bands, but it is incredibly refreshing to hear more musicians explicitly fashioning their dissent into art at a time when it has become either too risky or unfashionable to do so.

Appropriately, the album was recorded in the very city that the band focuses its ire on. It’s also their home base, which gives their occasionally heavy-handed sentiments even more weight. The feelings–however overstated–like those articulated in the short snippet “WASHINGTONDC” above reveal the sense of betrayal, paranoia, anger, and fear that spans the entire record. Unlike the seemingly callous provocativity of that track, pieces like “Isn’t Sam Really Our Friend?” frame current events as a melancholia-inducing let-down in the broadest of terms. The subversion of tired buzzwords in “Spike in the Chatter” serves to point out the inanity and evasive nature of such language. Simply, if they didn’t care about their home state and country so much, they wouldn’t be so pissed off.

This isn’t to say that the band can’t get funky even when slinging a little shit. The 80’s-sounding “Remote Control” presents its case using a bouncing bass line in a synth-pop framework, but one could argue that this is a way of sonically alluding to the fact that our current days bear a chillingly similar resemblance to the bad old days of Reagan.

Their willingness to explore such complex, controversial themes, while game but not always engaging, makes this an intriguing album worth several listens; it is, however, far from their best to date. Let’s hope, at least, that this inspires a greater dialog among musicians and other artists, regardless of political affiliation. Isn’t that what good art is for?

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