These two artists are more similar than you think. They emerged as outsiders in their respective, widely hyped local underground scenes in the late 90's. They've been very active since, despite not having a large discography to show for it, largely thanks to a steady stream of live performances, remixes and collaborations. And both artists have been wizards when it comes to criss-crossing genre boundaries, often within the same track. Despite their oddly similar career paths, on their latest releases, they're heading in opposite directions creatively.
I can understand what Sandro Perri has been trying to do over the past few years, after all, wanting to shift from making mysterious, atmospheric techno while seated on a stage floor behind a mess of wires to being the singer/songwriter/frontman of your own band under your own name doesn't need much justification. After years spent paying my dues opening for other, bigger name artists, I probably wouldn't want to keep settling for being one of Toronto's best kept secrets either.
Even when his work as Polmo Polpo was derivative (i.e. Gas with twangy guitars), he was still miles ahead of all the other copycats, and with "Like Hearts Swelling" and "Kiss Me Again and Again" he came into his own with some of the most unique music of the 00's. But solo artist Sandro Perri has always strayed too close to generic alt-country artist territory, and "Impossible Spaces" doesn't do much to change that impression.
I've never cared much for Perri as a vocalist, he's capable but not commanding on the mic, and while he might sound more confident on "Impossible Spaces" than ever before, his vocals don't amount to much more than a forgettable backdrop to the music. As I would have expected, he's at his best when he goes epic and lets his songs breathe for seven minutes or more (e.g. "How Will I?", "Wolfman"). Songs have a way of starting out as stripped down indie ballads and wandering their way into a 70's prog record complete with bodacious synth solo, while featuring bits of electronic trickery along the way. Come to think of it, Super Furry Animals used to do this a lot. "Impossible Spaces" is sort of like a SFA album circa 2000, minus the mad hattery and OTT sonic bonkerism that made their albums so great. But the way these songs take their unexpected twists and turns still form the bulk of the highlights from the album.
There are still plenty of things I don't like about Modeselektor, like 90% of their songs when they try to channel Jamaica. The fact that they were genre whores, unafraid to try anything and everything with any big or small name vocalist, used to be their most interesting trait and their Achilles heel. They were simply too hit-and-miss, their records always had some gems on them but were too inconsistent to be great as a whole.
That changed with 2009's "Moderat" album (with Apparat). That's where they perfected the art of siphoning the best traits of their collaborators and adapting their style to mesh with that of the people they worked with. "Monkeytown" still can't shake some of the old bad habits -- their dips into ragga and hip hop on "Pretentious Friends" and "Humanized" are the weakest parts of the album. But "Evil Twin" and "German Clap" are top notch club techno, up there with the best they've done in that style, and they've produced a couple of absolute gems out of their two Thom Yorke collabs, especially "This". It's like a sequel to "Idioteque", something you could conceivably hear on a Radiohead album if they had a fraction of Modeselektor's talent*. They slice up Thom Yorke's voice into nearly indecipherable loops, smother it with brooding bass lines and snippets of late 90's Autechre-style skittery beats, resulting in a haunting track that's not quite of any genre they've attempted before.
All in all, "Monkeytown" is an impressive, varied listen where even the slight misses (like on "Moderat") work well in context.
* slight clarification: this seems like a weaselly comment so I should explain a bit more ... to Radiohead, going "electronic" in the faux-Autechre sense has always meant getting weird and abstract. The real Autechre were never just about that, the magic was always in the atmospheres they created and the odd sounds they came up with. When they were weird and abstract for the sake of being weird and abstract, they sucked too. For Modeselektor, specifically in the case of "This", channeling Autechre means trying to make them sound more like Orbital circa "Snivilisation". Huge difference.