, April 30th, 2010 13:09
You Brits often quip that "Americans don't understand irony." But anyone who's been in America in the last 10 years will know that American irony runs so deep it encloses nearly everything in massive air quotes. Of course we're not talking about the literary irony, but irony in the sense of: "ironic trucker hat"; "ironic enjoyment of Phil Collins" and of course "ironic dancing." Being ironic is being disingenuous - an ambivalance to something so profound no one can tell if you're joking or not (least of all the person being "ironic"). People seem to forget how much irony was a part of early noughties American Indie: The Strokes with their 80s-tinged videos and rolled up blazer cuffs; the Killers with their guyliner and anachronistic synths. But they weren't making joke songs, they were legitimately trying to be cool - they may have been "ironic" about their rock star image but they still wouldn't turn down all the "ironic" blowjobs that came with it.
Trans Am's obsession with irony both predates and has outlived this tiring phenomenon. Their very name evokes retro, jock-rock and bad haircuts - pretty much the opposite of their sound and the post-rock scene they've been (mistakenly?) associated with. They insist on using intentionally trite or silly lyrics, vocoders and other long forgotten gear and teasing us with classic rock tropes. Every song is a pastiche of something, whether it's heavy metal, new wave or yacht rock. Yet for the most part, these elements are crafted into inventive songs that you can bob your head to even if your sense of musical integrity is shaking no.
This flamboyant use of style was is in sharp contrast to the minimal seriousness of their post-rock peers - they embraced electronic instruments long before it was popular to do so in America. Ironically (in the literary sense) their dance pastiches gained them many supporters in Europe where electronic music seems to be taken more seriously. Tortoise tried to go electronic on Standards and the results were mostly just creepy. Trans Am are also defenders of virtuoso musicianship, drum heroics and guitar solos, all of which are still deeply uncool in most circles.
Inevitably the best Trans Am songs are those imitating the styles you like - and presumably the styles they "genuinely" like. Futureworld mixed Kraftwerk with metal, synth pop, techno, noise and electro with inspired results. The tone was no longer arch and aloof just a bit mischievous. Somewhere around Liberation - an underrated and brilliant album only slightly dated by its politics - their experiments seemed to coalesce around something like a Trans Am style - a stern broth made from all the bare bones of the music they'd picked clean. Some might call this late period stylistic stagnation but one could equally say they've just found their groove and lost some of the gimmicks.
Their latest, The Thing also sits on this plateau. Like Futureworld, The Thing evokes retro-futurist imagery but this time through more of an 80s than a 70s lens: dystopian rather than utopian. ‘Black Matter’ sounds like a really muscular Gary Numan and has a cracking synth solo. In fact, Numan's angelic, overdriven synths are all over this record. There are also nods to Jean Michelle Jarre and drum sounds that probably should be eminating from octagonal pads. If anything, these elements are by now just part of the standard Trans Am arsenal. 'Heaven's Gate’ is a impressive display of technical ability - a noise outburst careening out of control like a jumbo jet through volcanic ash, then expertly landed by a capable pilot. ‘Apparent Horizon’ is by contrast a restrained and constructed song. ‘Space Dock’ acts as a rather serene closer to a tension-filled record.
Once at a Trans-Am gig, I met a Danish flight attendant who had flown over just to see them play. They were her favourite band. She remarked that the opening act Ulterior wasn't being serious "But Trans Am, they're a serious band" I wanted to correct her, but I couldn't find the words. And ultimately, she was right. Trans Am may be jokers but they ARE a serious band.