Trans Am

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Liberation Review

by Heather Phares

While rock's political side has been anemic for years, many predicted at the time of George W. Bush's election that having another Bush in the White House would signal the resurrection of indie rock's political conscience and consciousness. While it took a few years, that side of underground rock does seem to be slowly reviving. Trans Am's Liberation is a response to the Bush administration's war on Iraq, and extends into a general critique of what the band sees as the paranoid, invasive turn that America has taken since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Indeed, with such ridiculous-yet-ominous catch phrases as "Total Information Awareness" and "Spike in the Chatter" -- both of which appear as song titles here -- there is so much to skewer that it's more than a little surprising that it's taken this long for anyone to do so. Trans Am's attempt at political commentary is somewhat unique, since the band's songs are largely instrumental; aside from Godspeed You Black Emperor! and a few others, most politically oriented bands rely on lyrics to convey their opinions. While Trans Am's need to express their political views and their cliché-busting approach are both admirable, unfortunately their ways of expressing their dissent aren't all that inspired. On the surface, the band's detached, man-meets-machine sound seems perfectly suited to capture the paranoia of these times (and indeed, they have captured it on Clinton-era albums like The Surveillance and Futureworld), but more often than not, on Liberation the band's sound and message fail to connect.

"Uninvited Guest" -- which could apply to America's invasion of Iraq, the questionable circumstances of Bush's election, or both -- is a vocoderized cut-and-paste of Bush's speeches that makes the President sound like a warmongering ogre; the intent is valid, but since bootlegged songs with this Negativland-like approach have been floating around on the Net for at least a couple of years, the song just doesn't sound that fresh. Indeed, most of Liberation's music sounds enervated; songs such as "Outmoder," "White Rhino," and "Idea Machine" borrow from Trans Am's earlier work with less inspiration, although it's entirely possible that the heavy synth pop of "Music for Dogs" and "Remote Control" is an elevated commentary on how the 2000s seem like a bad rerun of the '80s. However, Liberation can be seen as a slight return to form after the rather stiff T.A. on the basis of just a few of its songs: the eerie acoustic drone of "Pretty Close to the Edge" is the musical equivalent of a thousand-yard stare, while the similarly subdued "Is Trans Am Really Your Friend?" seethes with paranoia. "Divine Invasion" subverts the chugging, hard rock from the soundtracks of TV commercials that encourage kids to join the armed forces. With its flanged guitars and pounding synth drums, it sounds like fighter planes streaming overhead and bombs going off below. "Divine Invasion, Pt. 2" is the shell-shocked aftermath. It's frustrating that much of Liberation doesn't live up to these moments; as worthwhile as the album's message is, it emphasizes just how difficult it is to make politically minded music that's equally impassioned and entertaining.

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