Trying to pin down Trans Am is as mercurial an endeavor as defining postmodern culture itself. Since postmodernism likes to subject itself to its own convoluted methods of critique, it's easy for the whole thing to disappear down the drain and take the sink along with it. It might, therefore, be easier to say that Trans Am just plain rocks. But even "rock" is an inadequate term, a verb that has been stripped of resonance by the static clatter of cultural litany. So what does Trans Am really do? Well, they kind of pop. And spazz. And do the funky robot, especially if said robot just OD'd on some synthesized technotropic Ecstasy. If there isn't already a scene in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome where a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk breakdances amid the nuked ruins of a new-wave discotheque, there definitely should be -- and TA should be the music booming out of his isotope-powered ghetto blaster.
Trans Am is, of course, a bit of an anachronism. The artwork on TA's inner sleeve portrays the trio -- Philip Manley, Nathan Means and Sebastian Thomson -- decked out in white robes, ruffles, gold chains and hairy chests. Although a staple of the Thrill Jockey roster, the band resides not in modern post-rock Chicago, but on the periphery of the insular D.C. indie scene. Dischord Records notables such as the Make Up's Ian Svenonius and Hoover's Fred Erskine have contributed to past Trans Am albums, and this time around, Fugazi's unofficial fifth member, Jerry Busher, chips in some tape loops to the android beat.
TA, of course, could be neatly summed up as mere retrograde electro-pop. Shards of OMD, Gary Numan, Devo and even With Sympathy-era Ministry glint in the prickly neon of icy synths and neo-glam cosmetics. And while the mine shaft of early-'80s club music has been canaried by everyone from Nine Inch Nails to the Faint over the last decade, Trans Am (appearing Monday, May 27, at the Bluebird Theater) digs even deeper into the genre's shiny plastic shallowness. Besides the bleak Teutonic abstraction of Kraftwerk, TA upholds the legacy of pure pop left by disco punks like New Order and Gleaming Spires. Slide-rule bass lines are latticed with the clunky precision of vintage beatboxes. Vocoders conjure the bionic cadence of urban electro masterpieces like the Jonzun Crew's "Pack Jam" or Newkleus's "Space Is the Place." In "Cold War," the quaint notion of nuclear paranoia is projected, in a post-Marxist Gang of Four dialectic, onto an everyday sexual equation: "Underneath iron sheets/A cold war between you and me." "Run With Me" offers up this vivid self-deconstruction: "I'm electric, but my circuits are shit/I get loud when my insides come out."
The song "Party Station," however, reveals the covert program pulsing like ozone underneath Trans Am's cybernetic carapace: "The party station has arrived/So get on board and take a ride." Yes, TA is, ultimately, an unabashed party record, one that makes Andrew W.K. sound about as balls-out as the theme song to 3-2-1 Contact. Postmodernists can sit around and ponder the essence of irony all they want: Manley, Means and Thomson are true retro-futurist automatons set to go supersonic on the Trans-Nostalgia Express.