Trans Am

Red Line (Thrill Jockey)

Combining passions for '70s kraut rock, '80s Atari kitsch, and '90s electronic music, Trans Am is the indie-rock equivalent of a garage sale. The Washington, D.C., trio, which began playing together in 1990 but didn't release its debut album until 1996, initially practiced an all-instrumental sound that poked fun at -- while paying homage to -- supergroups like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones (a singles collection is playfully titled You Can Always Get What You Want). More recently, Trans Am has added a thick layer of electronic sounds via Kraftwerk and Run-D.M.C., and utilized Peter Frampton's favorite vocal-distorting instrument, the vocoder.

Trans Am's fifth full-length, Red Line, is a sprawling, 70-plus-minute opus that ranges all over the map, from crunchy guitar-driven rock to drawn-out percussion jams to retro-techno. Some songs, like the solo drum number "Casual Friday" and its twitchy Germanic successor "Polizei (Zu Spat)," blend together, while others, like the angular guitar and ambient synth track "Village in Bubbles," synthesize a number of different styles. Casio-tinged tunes and stoner sludge run into keyboard-driven ditties and edgy, anything-but-playful pop cuts.

The schizophrenic album has its share of problems: Similarities to the group's last couple of albums bring to mind questions of musical growth, while guest work by drummer Jon Theodore of Royal Trux and saxophonist Julian Thompson add little to the proceedings. Also, after the initial fun of the vocoder wears off, the non-instrumental songs start to sound too similar. And while the group's members obviously have chops to spare, their smirky reappropriations occasionally get the better of them, like in the unimaginative reverse-guitar Jimi Hendrix rip-off "For Now and Forever."

Luckily, the band's intensity and range keep the songs from becoming boring, and if the material isn't new for Trans Am, that doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable. Overall the album is a success -- dark at times, frenetic at others, but always covered in a sticky layer of garage-sale gunk.

 
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