My favorite Simian Mobile Disco track just so happens to be the one considered by many critics and fans alike to be among the group’s worst. Yeah, I’m talking about Temporary Pleasure’s “Audacity of Huge:” a bone-stupid, frothy glass of electro-pop bravado whose notable traits include, among others, Yeasayer’s Chris Keating rap-singing about chilling in a “double dutch dinosaur duplex” with the sultan of Brunei with a steady supply of “Bill Murray,” and a constant, mildly-annoying sample that sounds like a demonic Cookie Monster being tickled. Fans of the band’s more earlier, sinister (and Keating-less) sounds will take one listen to “Audacity of Huge,” wince, and launch into a tirade on why Temporary Pleasure sucked: it was too poppy, they say; too much Beth Ditto and not enough moody synths. Others, like myself, spin that LP on a regular basis; banality is bearable, provided that there’s enough bass.
So you’d think James Ford and Jad Shaw would take the predictable route with their latest record, Unpatterns: Go back to the dark, crystalline grooves of Attack Decay Sustain Release, maybe throw in a few birdbrained bangers for candy-craving critics like myself. Well, they didn’t. And depending on how you like your electronica, the following pieces of information will either make you smile or sigh.
Unpatterns contains little in the way of vocals; all but four of the nine tracks are instrumentals, and there are no Chris Keating guest spots here, just vintage samples. If you’re looking for hints of the twitchy, stomping house that permeated the duo’s first two records, you’re also out of luck; 90s minimalism reigns supreme here. But it also contains some of the most mature, atmospheric music we’ve heard from sirs Ford and Shaw — and, periodically, some monstrous grooves pierce through the ambient haze.
Unpatterns is paced similarly to another throwback-inspired record — hear me out on this one — Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. It’s not surprising that the duo’s current touring package is a DJ set, because this record has the same structural ebbs and flows as Madge’s 2005 love letter to the dance floor. “I Waited For You” and “Cerulean” start things off strong, with steely bass chirps, trance-y chimes, and, in the case of the former, a delightfully stretched, gooey vocal sample.
After a pair of more downtempo jams, we hit the infectious core. “Interference,” a sort of unsettling disco tune from hell that’s filled to the brim with screeching synths and frosty 808 bumps, is only surpassed by “Put Your Hands Together,” which serves as a reminder of why people went to clubs in the 90s. In an age where a Flo Rida guest spot seems to be mandatory for every single dance track shipped off to the club kiddies, it’s easy to forget how simple and effective a four-word sample can be when married to a pulsing, cymbal-rich beat and handclaps. It’s a strategy drawing more from the playbook of C&C Music Factory than that of Crookers, and it works beautifully. The final triad of tracks descends from the aforementioned peaks elegantly, albeit with some inklings of lethargy. Stay for the crisp forays into 8-bit trance (“The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”), but don’t expect to be floored by the final two tracks; like any good DJ set, things tend to fizzle at the end.
Is there another “Audacity of Huge” buried in here? Definitely not; among Simian Mobile Disco’s three full-lengths, this is by far the least immediate, and bass-drop junkies will likely go running back to their Skrillex discographies for a stronger fix. But by forgoing those pop sensibilities, Ford and Shaw can highlight just what made us love this project in the first place: mesmerizing grooves steeped in early house, a steely undercurrent, and that bass, man; that bass.