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You would be forgiven for viewing a live album release through dubious eyes; as little more than a marketing cash-in or a failed attempt to capture the vigour of a great live performance. On the first charge, it is worth noting that Trans Am’s ‘What day is it tonight?’, a selection of performances spanning a decade and a half, from 1993-2008, comes – as is the current trend for enticing greedy downloaders to actually pay for music – with a supporting live DVD and an alluring Limited Edition status. The second charge is roundly trounced from the moment Conspiracy of the Gods opening Motorhead-aint-got-nothin-on-us riff breaks out of the starting blocks, and heralds in an hour of heart-palpitation drumming, jagged synths tussling with slabs of guitar, and a complete disregard for the tight-arsed manners of alternative rock.
Across eight studio albums on Thrill Jockey, the Washington DC three-piece have taken the notion of instrumental rock – a medium chiefly characterised by the earnest 15-minute dirge – and shaken it up into a mixture of 70s riff-o-rama, drum solos, pristine Synthpop, thudding Krautrock, brutal Hardcore, moments of sheer brilliance, and not forgetting the moments of utter stupidity. All of which are present and correct on the album.
Just as the title tussels with the concept of time, Trans Am’s genre-spazzing party rock removes itself from the taste constraints that would stop other bands ending Conspiracy of the Gods with an exultant Alman Brothers drum and guitar send-off and moving straight into the Casio keyboard electronica of Outmoder and Future World (complete with comedy vocoder).
But, for all their category defying, they are undoubtedly a band in touch with the history of popular music, like a post-rock band that has grown up ingesting everything from ACDC to the Human League, chewed it up and spat out the results. In that sense, watching Trans Am feels like watching a piece of pop art about experiencing popular music in an age saturated by it. Going even further, i’d say that it just feels like watching the best fucking party band I have ever seen.
What saves Trans Am from mere pastische, or smart-arse art-school piss taking, is their effortless chops – Seb Thompson’s force-of-nature kit pummelling for example – and the fact that, just when it seems that this might all be a big joke, they throw in something to wipe the smile off your face. Just as Future World’s kraftwerk mockery get a bit stale, along comes a huge monolith of an electro riff that completely shifts it up a gear. And with Tesco vs Sainsburys locomotive thud – an ominous soundtrack to the plaguing of white, convenient, blood-sucking boxes across every street corner in Britain – and the vacant sarcasm of Play in the Summer they come close to the kind of jerky disquiet that has been Steve Albini’s stock in trade since Big Black.
As a document of a live performance, ‘What day is it tonight?’ captures the fire, invention, dexterity and hilarity of a band that, if the selections of this record are to be believed, have been at their room-obliterating best for 15 years.
I listen to the record while writing this and begin to write that Trans Am are absolutely the best live band in the whole entire world. I then delete it to avoid meaningless hyperbole. Then I write it again, in the hope that acknowledging how stupid and over-the-top and obvious it is does not stop it being the absolute fucking truth.
‘What Day is it Tonight?’ is out on the 8th December.