I had the happy accident on Saturday to walk past the Knitting Factory and notice the placard advertising Trans Am were playing the following night. So, Sunday night, to cap off an anodyne afternoon of walking across the Williamsburg Bridge to see The Runaways (it was good), I was back at the Knitting Factory filling my face with rock.
There were two opening acts— The first was the phenomenal Jonas Reinhardt, whose perfect channeling of Gary Numan, rhythmic Krautrock, and the show’s headliners were worth the price of admission all by themselves. The second was affront to talent Nice Nice (what is with you guys picking up mediocre to plain bad electronic acts and putting them on your decreasingly illustrious roster, Warp?).
Jonas Reinhardt’s guitarist and vocalist is Trans Am’s Phil Manley- to whom, not knowing this at the time because I never really knew what the Trans Am guys look like, I gave an enthusiastic “What up, awesome opening band?” type “Fucking awesome!” to as we passed in the crowd. It made a little more sense why they sounded so much like an austere version of Trans Am once I figured that out.
While I enjoyed myself near to stupefaction during Jonas Reinhardt’s set, I felt I had to avenge the second act’s very presence or become scarce so as to avoid trouble with the security staff of the establishment. Most fun activities in New York, though, are sanitized cattle stockades, meaning that even if an opening band is really, really bad, bad like Nice Nice was bad, you can’t really leave the venue and go to the bar Why can’t you go to the bar? You can’t go to the bar because the club is maximizing its income by hosting a stand-up open mic event (I doubt those open-mic’ers were getting paid for the booze money they were funneling into the joint with their humiliating efforts) in the only other part of the place you could find refuge. You also can’t throw things, etc. So, I had to wait it out.
Nice Nice nervously manipulated live loops and step sequences while a drummer wankily flourished his command over his weird drum set. The sequencer/guitar guy looked a lot like Dana Carvey. The drummer had one of those snares that’s only about half as deep as it should be, meaning it gave that high-pitched, unsatisfying pop every time it was struck, and his toms were all about 3/4 of the circumference of a normal set of toms. He was obviously a very good drummer, though he could have done with a band and a kit that didn’t inspire homicide.
Trans Am kept true to the form of their current record, Thing, out on Thrilljockey just this month, and played a compelling, dread-inspiring set of off-time changes, insane drum artistry, vocoded enigma, and dazzling bass and guitar chops. I particularly liked that they threw Red Line‘s “I want it all” and “Play in Summer” in the setlist, the most accessible tracks of one of their more off-putting albums. A song like “Futureworld” just wouldn’t have fit in the hemi-kiltered set they had put together.
If I may make a comparison across art forms, Trans Am seems to work on a cycle similar to Pynchon’s— Pynchon, in ten-year arcs, swings in his prose production from the purposefully and masterfully baroque (V), drifting to the easier to digest narrative (The Crying of Lot 49), to the abstracted and purely hallucinatory (Gravity’s Rainbow), back to the straighforward Narrative (Vineland), and then further rule-bound into the baroque (Mason & Dixon) before swimming back into the waters of the collective unconscious (Against the Day). Trans Am follows a similar arc from the very conventionally digestible to the esoteric and ineffable, with the mastery and skill to pull it off. Some records see them hewing very closely to a theme and song-oriented approach (Futureworld 1999, Liberation, 2004, Sex Change, 2007), while others, contain more exploration of theme and instrumentation (Red Line, 2000, TA 2002, Thing, 2010).
The feel is always a kind of cold dread and ecstatic expectation, and they do it well on Thing. From the album art to the song titles, Thing is an sci-fi/psychological thriller of expectant encounters with the uncanny and uncertainty. They’ve been one of my favorite bands for over ten years, and I’m glad I got to see them play again.