3 out of 5
Label: Thrill Jockey
Produced by: Nikhil Ranade, Trans Am
A seemingly fraught and relatively short recording session, and the rocky emotional background of being crafted during the 2016 elections, perhaps is what gives Trans Am’s 11th album such a literally split – A-side and B-side – presentation, between all-time polished, confident, stylistic victory laps, and open-ended and comparatively unmoving wanderings.
Pitched as back-to-basics, openers I Hear Fake Voices and Staying Power communicate exactly that, with the former a no frills, plow-ahead speedy rocker, and the last a funky post-rock jam, both focused and rich and the group, generally going live-to-tape, absolutely in sync. From there, we start to step through TA’s modes: Ship of the Imagination is a badass prog tune, absolutely on point without being showy – that attribute, to me, kind of a mainstay in Trans Am’s brand, of being one of the key, influential 90s instrumental Thrill Jockey acts who never had to necessarily outright dazzle to prove their bona fides – and Alles Verboten is their kraut rock party tune, a perfect, head-bobbing way to close out the A-side. The band is showing what they can do, and offering up some of their sharpest, to-the-point variations on that.
And then the B-side.
While title track California Hotel’s comparative chill makes sense after the raucous preceding tracks, it leads to three other songs that… don’t much add to that conversation. Followup I Want 2B Ignored is an interesting, semi-inverted “love” song, but its point, whatever it may be, kind of stalls and gets lost in repetition, and, again, the lack of musical differentiation it brings to the mix. We then get a 1.5 minute interstitial track of the same mood, and close out on Rules of Engagement, which essentially mimics California Hotel’s vibe, but with even less density.
From the top down, I’m in favor of sequencing decisions like this, but I’m outright puzzled by the intended effect. It rather ends up feeling like the group ran out of steam, leaving the B-side to be exactly that: B-sides; left over pieces.
The bandcamp description of the recording session sounds like it wasn’t the smoothest thing, and I feel like there’s a general sense that we should respect the album as a piece of workman-like effort, and not necessarily give it a song-by-song analysis. Which is fair, and from that perspective, that the group milked out the excellent A-side is awesome, and it should further be mentioned that all the tracks sound phenomenal: the production achieves a rich, organic sound, whether we’re jamming out on guitars or keys. Regardless, the overall impact as the album goes along becomes nil, and things are perhaps hurt by having such an unevenly grabbing opening set of songs as compared to a more meandering back half.