Sex Change (Thrill Jockey, 2007)
by Trans Am
originally published at Dusted Magazine
To listen to Trans Am is to rock out with the unshakeable feeling that you're not in on the joke. Trans Am have always been intent on making their intelligence audible: they used to do it by packaging brittle minimalism as critical complexity — sort of the way intelligent dance music is intelligent — but more often now they embrace the flashier clichés of bygone musical styles with steely proficiency and implicit sarcasm. It's a cryptic gambit, the antithesis of user-friendly. The most redeeming moments on their albums come when they give up smirking in favor of technically impeccable rock abandon, but those moments are evasive and costly. The clichés sound good when they're not intentionally grating, but anyone familiar with the rules of postmodern engagement knows they're not supposed to be enjoyed.
Sex Change is Trans Am's easiest album yet, and for that reason their most suspect. They wouldn't just go and age on us, soften or simplify or streamline, without complicating matters, would they? Nothing here is challenging in any meaningful sense of the word, or even particularly indulgent; ten of eleven songs hover around the four-minute range, and the other doesn't break seven. More of it is defiantly anthemic, less is wry or alienating or outright smarter-than-you. The evil riffage of "Conspiracy of the Gods" makes up for the over-trebled porn groove of "Climbing Up the Ladder"; the mid-album drought ("4,738 Regrets" wouldn't cut it as a '90s Cure b-side) is easily forgotten thanks to the excellent closing set. Sex Change is uneven from song to song, but name a Trans Am record that isn't. What's something here is the smoothness with which the record evens out as a whole.
And maybe smoothness isn't such a praiseworthy thing for this band. If their older albums staged that perpetual battle between heart and brain, at least they had both, whatever the proportions. Where 1999's Futureworld managed to combine them dynamically and rewardingly, Sex Change is more of a convergence, a concession of both elements — not to each other, but to the principle of consensus. "North East Rising Sun," a crackling number with the least taxing vocals they've recorded yet, nods to TA's Kraftwerk-is-dead-long-live-Kraftwerk legacy with a fresh energy and without smugness; the next song, the onerously hedonistic "Obscene Strategies," does just the opposite. Neither would have raised any eyebrows on Liberation, but both would have been ballast.
The last act works best, particularly the aptly named "Shining Path" and "Triangular Pyramid," which sounds like Pelican but twice as fast. It's the burst of tempo and rhythm the album wants from the beginning, but still there's a curious restraint to it: these are just muscular, somewhat clever rock songs, not those revelatory breakouts where intellect and fervor have coalesced in the past — not "Stereo Situation" from The Surveillance, or Liberation's "June," or "Motr" from Surrender to the Night. Like the rest of Sex Change, and like so much of Trans Am's catalog, they scarcely manifest, much less magnify, the band's instrumental talents. In the wonderfully cheeky opening and closing transitions of "Pyramid" you hear smart men having fun tweaking the listener, but not quite musicians having fun playing music.
But this may as well not matter, as long as everyone's getting something out of the deal. Trans Am have made it suspiciously easy to separate the rock from the agenda, and by the former standards Sex Change is a trimmer and more consistently pleasing record than any of its predecessors. All the same, you wonder if they're not just fucking with you on a more sophisticated scale, making you wonder not whether the joke is on you but whether anyone's even telling one.back