Modeselektor has made a career on producing an unexpected mash of sounds and styles. Anything goes with the duo: hip-hop, techno, acid, dubstep, R&B, reggae are all on display in their live sets, albums, and mixes. Their new label Monkeytown has been showcasing this eclectic look at electronic music starting with the wide ranging Modeselektion compilation late last year. Sometimes this variety has led them to make unfocused forays (Happy Birthday! and Body Language Vol. 8) on the heels of successful melting pots (Hello Mom! and Boogybytes Vol. 3). There is a fine line between cohesion and discontinuity. Thankfully their latest album, the self-referentially titled Monkeytown, trends towards the former.
There is a keen sense of the present bass scene with numbers like “Blue Clouds,” “German Clap,” and “Grillwalker,” three of the notable instrumentals here. The rolling low end rhythms of these tracks would not sound out of place in a deep dubstep set, even while having their own idiosyncratic natures. “Blue Clouds,” for instance, has tweaked synths that bring a little bit of the video game sound into a seemingly straight dance floor burner. The techno thump of “German Clap” subverts its side-chained melody and bass to make it more off kilter than what you would expect of something that takes its name from good old-fashioned German minimal. By contrast, “Grillwalker” is all about going for the most hyped, most spastic bass line of the album. Combined with trickling arpeggios in the breakdown, it’s like a slinky revival of Mirwais while attempting to go far beyond him.
Over half of the album is given to guest vocalists. Two of these are with frequent collaborator Thom Yorke, whose voice has often felt somewhat out of sync with Modeselektor’s rhythms in the past. Here, though, there is a new synergy. It helps that “Shipwreck” sounds like it could have been on The King of Limbs, with a live-sounding drum loop and moody synthesizer driving the majority of the music while Yorke hiccups in syncopation with the beat. “This” has a similar staccato use of the vocals, this time wrapped in a rounder rhythm (sounding somewhat like remixed Radiohead, actually). While the singer and producers work well together, these two tracks are the sole exceptions to the cohesive nature of a Monkeytown. Yorke’s falsetto and unique phrasing certainly require a certain type of song structure and space that have been difficult for his collaborators to fit into the rest of the album.
More in keeping with Modeselektor’s style are the abstract hip-hop collaborations. While Busdriver is treading familiar territory content-wise with “Pretentious Friends,” the freedom in how his vocal is treated allows Modeselektor to slot him into their unique production quite well. It makes me wonder how the artists worked together: Did the MC know how much his vocal would be cut and effected before recording it? There is no shortage of manipulation here. Likewise, Anti-Pop Consortium is in full Arrhythmia mode on “Humanized,” giving Modeselektor license to go crazy on the production. The APC trio all have such weird flows that the bizarre bubbling rhythm underneath feels perfect, as if Earl Blaize is looking over the German producers’ shoulders. The best track by far is “Berlin,” featuring the R&B vocalizations of Miss Platnum chopped and rearranged to suit the track’s Kahn-like meld of house, bass, and soul. It’s a unique track for Modeselektor, being one of their few forays into female vocals. It’s strangely paced, starting with small, repeated cut-ups, that finally burst forth into a gigantic diva vocal in true house fashion. This track almost perfectly captures the current juxtaposition of house rhythms, bass music production, and R&B melodies employed by the aforementioned Kahn, Salva, Kingdom, Mosca, and Jam City, among others.
Elsewhere, Modeselektor go for the curious, such as PVT ballad “Green Light Go,” and the truly strange Otto Von Schirach guesting “Evil Twin,” perhaps one of the most left field guest spots I’ve seen on an album in recent years. In typical Von Schirach fashion, it’s absurd, unhinged and unsettling all at the same time. But that’s what one should expect from a Modeselektor album, a clash of ideas and sounds that somehow hang together by the sheer uniqueness of their creators’ ears. While that can backfire on artists, when they focus on the similarities in rhythm and texture instead of the differences of the style or collaborator, the result is fascinatingly together. Monkeytown is perhaps their most successful abum in that respect, which goes to show that they’ve never stopped evolving.