Monkeytown is best when it sticks to the band's dance-floor ready material. The album's many collaborations, on the other hand, are hit and miss.
In a city like Los Angeles, one is likely to end up catching sight of a celebrity from a distance, perhaps as said celebrity is doing a photo shoot or just strolling by to get some food. Snapshots are taken, stories are told, but all in all, these sightings aren't tantamount to getting first billing in a movie star's film. But it is interesting to fathom what the reaction of the people partying it up at The Low End Theory club last March was to discovering that their guest DJ was Radiohead front man Thom Yorke. Many might not have recognized him, but for those who did it must have been quite a surreal experience -- one minute dancing to the club’s bass-heavy sound, the next finding out that one of music’s most prominent songwriters is running the playlist.
The brief video of Yorke’s set is interesting to watch. What is particularly striking of the video is not Yorke’s slightly humorous dancing, but instead the song that’s being played. The groove on the song is monstrous (as seen in the audience’s exuberant reaction the second the beat drops), and its glitch-heavy sonic is perfectly placed. The song is “Kill Bill Vol. 4,” from German electronic duo Modeselektor’s debut LP Hello Mom!. It’s a piece that is highly indicative of both the group’s style and the group’s influence on Yorke’s own work. They are even contributing to the upcoming King of Limbs remix record. The propulsive and repetitive grooves of “Kill Bill Vol. 4” exemplify the band’s strongest trait: putting bodies on the dance floor. The band has been pegged with many labels, ranging from the highly controversial Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) to the more obvious ones such as glitch. Whatever genre the band might fall under, Modeselektor's finest moments are the ones that are the most straightforward because all it takes is one killer groove to get people moving.
Monkeytown, their fifth album proper (including the 2009 collaboration record Moderat), has plenty of those dance floor-ready moments, but those moments are balanced with plenty of collaborative efforts between the band and other artists, notably Yorke. As a whole, the record is pretty good. Given the band's past outings, the strongest moments are the ones that stick to the repetitive club jams. The sinister "Evil Twin", the album's strongest track, is centered around one darkly infectious melody that is played on a couple of different synth sounds, ranging from bouncy bass to mechanical distortion. The song does end with a brief vocal interlude, but the central focus remains the groove, and it is one hell of a groove. The song bears a strong structural similarity to “Kill Bill Vol. 4”, which no doubt is why it is such a good track. “German Clap” and “Grillwalker” are both successful for the same reason. The latter, in particular, takes a wobbly synth bass and juxtaposes it with a sprightly arpeggio. Though this formula doesn’t always work, like on the uneventful album opener “Blue Clouds”, the record’s core remains the simple-but-effective set of instrumental tracks.
Where the album begins to lose some of its strength is on the collaborative tracks. The first of these efforts on the album is “Pretentious Friends”, which, save for a completely distracting and unnecessary telephone interlude, is a fairly catchy song, but nothing stellar. This becomes a more substantial problem on some of the album’s later tracks, where both the vocals and the music aren’t particularly interesting, as on “Berlin”. Boredom isn’t the only problem, unfortunately: a very misplaced vocoder appears on “Green Light Go”, a song which wasn’t terribly interesting from the get-go. On many of these collaborative tracks, the signature Modeselektor sound seems to be put on the back-burner, which makes these songs, while not awful, not particularly worth listening to.
Of the album’s multiple guest vocalists, the one that will no doubt get this record much attention is Yorke, who contributes to both “Shipwreck” and “This”. The former sounds more like Radiohead than Modeselektor -- the drum beat is near identical to “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” from In Rainbows. The song is by no means a horrible track, but on a Modeselektor album, a Radiohead-like track diverts attention from the real quality material the band is putting out. The latter is pretty good. Yorke’s fragmented vocal is treated as a note on a synthesizer rather than the dominating force behind the song. This allows the collaborative effort to blend into Modeselektor’s typical sound, which is the ideal that much of the record unfortunately doesn’t live up to.
The beats, rhythms and grooves of Monkeytown are no doubt demonstrative of the band’s skill at bringing the energy level of the club up several notches. When the band sticks to this wheelhouse, they’re as successful as they’ve ever been. When they divert from it, the results are wishy-washy. Some might counter the aforementioned objections to this album by suggesting that an album consisting only of simple, repetitive songs would wear thin short into its running time. This objection does have some merit as homogeneity is no doubt a problem that plagues any number of records, electronic or otherwise. But when one listens to the irresistible hooks of tracks like “German Clap" and “Evil Twin”, he or she is so likely to be led to dance that such a concern wouldn’t matter. Modeselektor know how to light up the dance floor, and despite Monkeytown’s misfires, it doesn't seem that talent will be going away any time soon.