Q: How political can an instrumental album be?
Welcome to Trans Am California Hotel, their brand new vinyl only LP, which was released on RSD 2017 but wasn’t part of it, if you see what I mean – a fairly low-key release. I wasn’t going to buy this one as I wasn’t too enamoured by their previous, slightly robotic, album X. But then I saw that great Technicolor LP cover, read that the title was a nod to the comparatively overshadowed death of Glenn Frey last year, took into account my brand loyalty to Thrill Jockey and the fact that it was out on ‘translucent gold’ vinyl* and so somehow I ended up walking out of Probe Records with a copy under my manly arm.
What I find most impressive about California Hotel is the variety they have packed into 8 tracks and around 30 minutes, it’s a shimmering, shifting little beastie of an album. It hits the ground running, hard, with ‘I Hear Fake Voices’ which is a rough, tough post-rocker with some real bite and drive built around some great guitaring. It’s a relentlessly energetic way to kick open the doors of an album and it works perfectly. The keys are much less prominent in this track and the band come on like Fugazi.
Speaking of which they also borrow a little of that band’s slinky menace on second track ‘Staying Power’ which was finished on US Election Night, when they got a ride home with a driver who was worried that he was now facing deportation. ‘Staying Power’ harks back, the Thrill Jockey website tells us, to their days as ‘a slightly out-of-place funk-metal band playing 1980’s hard core shows in Washington, DC that protested the conservative politics of Reagan and Bush-era America’. It is a brilliant track too, full of intent and some excellent bass work; it sounds righteously pissed off.
Next up ‘Ship of the Imagination’ climbs aboard Jean Michel Jarre’s laser harp space ship for a ride to the stars, escapism ahoy! Compared to the mood of the first two tracks we’ve been helping ourselves here to the dentist’s nitrous oxide, okay so you know all about the pain but it’s making like my hair and receding into the middle distance. It is funny, in recent years Mr JMJ has gone from being utterly infra dig to revered elder of the tribe. Imagine that French chap jamming with Pink Floyd and you’re most of the way there, everything is bright and obvious and absolutely none the worse for it.
You looking for some tasty guitars and a bit of vocoder**? of course you are, what sane organism wouldn’t be? then ‘Alles Verboten’ is the one for you. This is a noisy little bastard of a track with a terrific Teutonic stomp about it, it puts me in mind of a 30 foot tall Kraftwerk-inspired killer robot strafing the ground with explodey bomb things, which is the sort of thing I think about on the train home far more often than a 45 year-old man should do.
California Hotel‘s title track summons up the evening heat fade via the sort of keyboards last given a competitive outing on some of the incidental music on Miami Vice, plus some elegiac guitar sounds in the background. It’s atmospheric enough, it sounds like the cover looks, like a TV with the colour saturation cranked right up to unnatural; that might mean something, it may not. My joint favourite track is the downbeat, minor key ‘I Want 2B Ignored’, where the vocoder gets deployed to such an extent that the whole tune sounds like a sad satellite, ‘I want 2B Ignored / Treated like a whore / Locked behind a door’. I get stuck on this track, playing it over and over again. I can’t work out if there is real feeling here, or something more synthetic, or if such considerations even matter any more. If androids dream of electric sheep then surely we can’t begrudge them an oily tear or two?
‘Rules of Engagement’ closes California Hotel in a stately dignified fashion, a swell of gentle keys playing out over the end, all shimmer, glide and ride, but only after the short squall that is ‘Expansions’. ‘…. Engagement’ sounds comforting to me, it is the reverse coolness of the pillow on a hot night, the first fat drops of rain after a drought and the first time you’ve sat down and relaxed all day; maybe it is hope.
Which is a rather nice place to leave us, today of all days.
*in actuality it’s more ‘Sunny D Addict’s urine yellow’, but what me worry? I own a few LPs allegedly on gold vinyl, not a single one of which is actually gold coloured – forget all the whole Russia/Comey enquiries I demand to know what the US government is doing about this evil injustice!
**I know I called it an instrumental album and it sort-of mostly is but not like totally, totally – you dig?