March 01, 2004

tRANSELEMENt "8 Songs About Travel"

I like to make sweeping statements in my reviews, which might piss some of this site’s readers off every now and then. Until one of my statements gets proven wrong, though, I’m going to keep making them.

tRANSELEMENt are, hands down, the best kept secret in English underground music. These four Lancastrian lads put the best moments of mid-‘90s American indie-rock, mid-‘70s Canterbury folk/prog, and 21st-century IDM in a blender, toss a bunch of hooks in before setting puree, and serve the spiky mixture to the listener in digestible four-minute bursts of inspiration. They’ve got the tunes, the musicianship, and the vocal chops to back their ADD up, and their live shows are even more spellbinding than the records. They’ve released one excellent mini-album every year since 2001, and they haven’t even begun to tap into the massive back catalog they’ve been building up over the last nine years. Last but not least, they’re all good-looking college-age men, which I don’t really care about, but shallow marketing departments the world over should. With all this in their favor, it’s completely bonkers that tRANSELEMENt haven’t soared beyond the level of “promising unsigned band” into the world of bombastic NME articles and “next big thing” SPIN raves. I get the feeling that it doesn’t bother the band much, but if I have anything to say about it, the next British Invasion should start here and now with tRANSELEMENt.

Why, then, am I reviewing 8 Songs about Travel, a deliberately obscure and experimental collection of songs released on double-CDR format on a label that not even most Brits have heard of? Their previous mini-album Pendletones remains the best starting point for the band, full of punishing crescendos that sound like an angry Pavement ransacking band hall during recess. 8 Songs has none of these crescendos, instead opting exclusively to explore the band’s softer, gentler sides. Nonetheless, it remains of a piece with the rest of their discography.

As usual, tRANSELEMENt continue to forgo standard verse/chorus/bridge structure --- their songs are more like verse/tangent/STRATOSPHERE. Vocals don’t play a huge role in their songs, often appearing only during the first or last minutes of a song. This demonstrates a surprising lack of ego, especially when you consider that guitarist and lead singer Jay Stansfield has the most heartrending falsetto in all of independent rock (and lead guitarist Karl Eden’s no slouch on the microphone either). In spite of their stubbornly discursive approach to composition, every tRANSELEMENt song has multiple sections that you’ll be humming in your head for weeks thereafter. Thus, even on 8 Songs about Travel, the band manages to piss on top of its contemporaries from a great height.

The only thing about this mini-album that could be single-minded is the track listing. They weren’t kidding when they called the album 8 Songs about Travel. The words “Journey,” “Mission,” “Voyage,” “Far,” “Away,” and “Adventure” all appear in the song titles. The music is organized according to the logic of daydreaming and Sunday driving, in which the journey ends up becoming more enjoyable than the destination, and the amount of time that it takes to get from one place to the next is of no consequence.

“Journey of an Orange” begins as a lopsided waltz constructed from acoustic guitars and junk percussion. Karl’s slurred tenor harmonizes with Jay’s falsetto until the song’s midpoint, in which the music abruptly shifts to a cacophony of droning organs, disembodied voices, and radio static. “A Haunted Mission” starts out as spasmodic techno with croaky, distorted vocals, but undergoes a similar stylistic shift halfway through, into an ambient collage of spooky synthesizers, backward pianos, and piercing test tones. Initially, “Far and Away” suggests what a Super Mario Brothers game would sound like if it were set in the fields of Scotland, until Jay’s vocals come in at the song’s final moments, supported by an orchestra of out-of-tune flutes and celli. “There’s a Farm” is the only song that has electric guitars on it, which should already tell you how markedly different from Pendletones this mini-album is, and boasts reverb-drenched harmonies that sound like a choir of eunuchs trapped in the bottom of a well. The interminable stretch of studio chatter that begins “Lonely Goat Herder” eventually gives way to an unbelievable instrumental that could only be dubbed “Celtic spaghetti western.” “Postcard Frommage” and the 12-minute odyssey “Basic Adventure” sport intricate vocal and instrumental cutups that would betray a strong Books influence if I didn’t already know that tRANSELEMENt have been employing technology in that manner way long before Thought for Food.

Yes, now would be the time to tell you that I’m friends with the band, and have access to loads of material that hasn’t even been released yet. However, you don’t have to be THAT familiar with the band to enjoy 8 Songs about Travel as a worthy release in its own right. While I recommend that you pick up Pendletones before Travel instead of vice versa, it doesn’t really matter to me as long as you BUY BOTH (I believe their first mini-album Sour Blaster is out of print). It’s a comment on the state of music today that one of its most forward-thinking pop bands isn’t even close to reaching critical mass in its own backyard. Super Furry Animals, I would like to introduce you to the best opening band you’ve never had.

--Sean Padilla

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