I SWEAR I’M NEVER WRITING ANOTHER RECORD REVIEW AGAIN.
Bobby Conn: King For A Day / Trans Am: Sex Change (Thrill Jockey)
Over the course of a decade, Bobby Conn has managed to carve out a curious niche in the already-crowded panoply of Chicago’s music scene. Once known primarily for his frenzied live shows (seminars really) and style-a-minute recordings, he has naturally resisted easy categorization due in no small part to the sheer grasp and reach of his various personas.
And yet for all of his incarnations — Bobby Conn as low-rent Bacchus, Bobby Conn as mesmeric performer, the Bobby Conn that emerges on his sixth solo outing King for A Day may be his most convincing yet. Like all Bobby Conn records, King for A Day benefits as much from ambition as it does anything else, and the lineup reflects this.
Working with romantic partner and musical accomplice Monica BouBou, Conn also enlists the help of erstwhile colleagues The Glass Gypsies and newcomers The Detholz! Even John McEntire weighs in at one point to lend his hand at synthesizer. The results are equal parts Hollywood polemic, tawdry ballad and cheap thrill. Make no mistake — there are no glassy introspections here. No meditative brushstrokes. This is Bobby Conn at his kinky best.
He knows it, too. When he sings “My teeth are so white/They burn your eyes/So close your eyes/And let me simplify your life” (in “Anybody”), there’s no mistaking the smirk in his voice. And when he sings “Here I am, if you want it/There’s no reason to wait/I’m so easy to talk to/Give me love…” (in “Twenty-one”), you get the sense that he’s not so much sympathizing with the protagonist as making fun of her.
It’s not all about the lyrics though, and it wouldn’t be a Bobby Conn record if it didn’t contain some unexpected musical delights — the distended, snaking string figures that emerge in “A Glimpse of Paradise,” the prowling and muscular guitar that lines the basin of the instrumental “Sinking Ship.” Even ostensible pop songs can’t escape Bobby Conn’s peculiar, weird imprint — the muted horns and tricky time signatures of “Twenty-one”transform what could be a disaffected take on disco-era schmaltz into something more telling. And in the opening song “Vanitas,” tense, mostly acoustic churning gives way to sudden, all-out hair-metal assault.
At times, the record’s sheer density and stylistic promiscuity threatens to overwhelm, and there are moments when the record seems to overtake itself. But Conn knows his stuff, and is nothing if not dedicated to his craft. The end result is a sprawling, monstrously-complicated record that sheds previous incarnations as deftly as it thoroughly inhabits them. And like all Bobby Conn records, it just may be his best yet.
Like their longtime labelmate, Thrill Jockey’s Trans Am seems to invite comparisons to just about everything, a tendency not at all surprising given the band’s penchant for borrowing liberally from both well-worn prog-rock tropes and early monochromatic electronic music. Yet despite these wholesale appropriations, or perhaps because of them, Trans Am has always enjoyed an uncanny ability to re-invent itself, and their latest record, Sex Change, is no exception.
Mixed and recorded in a little under three weeks, without benefit of their normal gear and often employing an adapted version of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies,” Sex Change finds the band gamely continuing along the promising arc hinted at in 2004’s Liberation. More of a tactical than a strategic shift, the record doesn’t veer very far from the sleek, rhythm-heavy and programmatic template established in earlier releases.
But there are some new elements this time around. In “North East Rising Sun,” the inclusion of honest-to-goodness vocals, unadorned or otherwise obfuscated by vocoder, is a nice touch. So too is the shy, guitar-driven lift of “4,738 Regrets.” They’re not seismic shifts by any stretch, but there’s enough of these moments to suggest that they may be on to something.
Trans Am’s ability to mimic has survived intact as well. Tracks like “Exit Management Solution,” with its squelchy bass line and top-heavy synths, could easily pass for vintage hollAnd, and the guitar wash of closer “Triangular Pyramid” gives a polite nod of the head in Built To Spill’s direction.
Still, perhaps due to the harried recording schedule, the record is a little thin in places. Tracks like “Climbing Up the Ladder “ don’t seem to offer much beyond a phoned-in, perfunctory take on ‘80’s era funk. And “Obscene Strategies” lifts a bit too heavily from War’s Low Rider, even down to the sunglass-shaded vocals and insistent cowbell.
It’s at these moments that you realize that listening to a Trans Am record can be a self-conscious experience. You wonder constantly: am I getting the joke? Yet despite these minor distractions, the record serves as a welcome return to form. It may not be the most complete or consistent record they’ve made over their long career, but, judging from where they seem to be heading, they shouldn’t be long in getting there.