Last time we left our heroes, the Bizzaro-world punk group known as Ima Robot had scored a left-field minor hit with the punk-y “Dynomite” from its eponymous debut. The parent album was wildly uneven, poppy to a degree, flat-out weird in the other (and not in the pleasant Beck way). So, three years later, the band comes back with an album that drops the hard-rock edge and aims for nothing but the charts, the group no doubt enamored with the idea of hearing its songs pump from your favorite radio station. And if it was 1988, this plan just might have succeeded.
Flushing out a late-era New Order sound but filled with more electronic bells and whistles than a digital Santa sleigh, each song off of Ima Robot’s sophomore release, Monument to the Masses tries to be catchy without being so. All the elements are in place: the handclaps, the piano tinkles, the robotic guitar strums—but none of it seems to stick. Nothing leaps off the album and grabs your attention like “Dynomite” did only three years previous. The opening track, “Disconnect”, reeks of the dreaded scent of Trying Too Hard, coming up with a good-but-not great riff that Gary Numan probably wouldn’t have killed for, but would have bought (the themes of disconnection and reaching operators would be right up his alley as well). “Creeps Me Out,” in its self-deprecating lyrical tone, tries to be profound but comes across more show-off than pitying showdown. This isn’t the first time you feel like a great opportunity is squandered.
Yet, this isn’t to say that the album is terrible, not by any means. The band still has a personality, and Alex Ebert’s vocals are fun and annoying in the same equal doses. “Cold Cold Universe” would have been a fantastic hit two decades ago (though it’s hard to tell how the pseudo-rapping would go over), but is actually one of the most approachable and fun tracks here. “Eskimo Ride” also follows the formula, sounding most adept for clubs with fog and laser lights, but not much else. Yet, as with most bands of Ima Robot’s nature, some of the best work comes from simply slowing things down. Case in point: the touching “Happy Annie”, a moving little number that still manages to incorporate handclaps into its overwhelming sense of sadness. Ebert really focuses himself lyrically here, and doesn’t as much offer a song as an engaging character study (plus, his voice has never sounded better than on this track). Same goes for the mellow and fun “Lovers in Captivity,” a deliciously slow number that ranks as one of the best things Ima Robot has ever done. When you hear the lyrics, “car crash contemplations”, with a humorous little pause before “that’s wrong,” a strange smile will come to your face, and when the boisterous chorus kicks in, it gets really hard to write off the band altogether.
There still remain some absolutely dreadful moments, including the wannabe-anthem that is “Stick It to the Man” (a record industry lament that tries way too hard to be ironic by tagging all the label information for the album at the tail-end of the song). The band’s ambitions may have risen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has created quality output. Just like its debut, there remain many bright spots along with the forgettable ones. Someday, Ima Robot will round up all the best elements and actually make a great album. Until then, we have the eject button.