Basement Jaxx recordings offer the aural equivalent an over-crowded phone booth in an international train station at rush hour—no space is too small to fill. In a Jaxx recording, a frantic rush of sound, a veritable clash of human voice and churning steel fills your head. If it’s tranquility you want, this isn’t the place.
Felix Burton and Simon Ratcliffe, the duo comprising Basement Jaxx, have wisely recognized the dire straits in which dance music finds itself, and on their new album Kish Kash, wisely take a step outside of the immediate fray. Certainly the new album contains elements of dance, and even includes a couple of pure dance-funk compositions, but a list of contributors headlined by artists as diverse Siouxsie Sioux and Me’shell Ndegeocello suggests broader ideas at work, and for all the typically strident chaos of the sound, it pays off here.
The Jaxx emerged from the Brixton club scene in 1994 and produced a string of underground house hits, such as the superb “Samba Magic”, on their own Atlantic Jaxx label. At the time of their debut album, Remedy (1999), they were hailed as saviors of a dormant house music scene, and were perceived by many as injecting a new vision into a tired genre. In fact, house music did re-emerge strongly over the course of the next few years, but to my mind, the Jaxx had little to do with that re-emergence. Singles from the album, such as “Red Alert” and “Rendez-Vu”, were huge club hits and provided the soundtrack to a European summer, but how definitively one could label them as “house” tracks is something I’d question. At the very least, the house revival was more attributable to the West Coast movement, specifically to such labels and players as Naked Music, Miguel Migs and Om Records. But no matter.
Remedy was a transient pleasure, fun while it lasted, but little of it remained afterwards. The follow-up, Rooty, was actually rootless. The duo continued with highly compressed sounds that attempted to bring a punk sensibility to a genre of music that had become too predictable, too slick and too streamlined. The goal was noble enough, but the execution seemed to lack genuine inspiration. Buxton and Ratcliff had been touring extensively for over a year, and although an attempt to get back to basics with a weekly club night in Brixton was intended to re-establish roots, a certain world-weary fatigue seemed to find its way into the finished product in spite of it’s hyper-kinetic sound.
The new album maintains that full-press sound, but rather than pure dance music, offers music you can dance to (which is different). “Supersonic” and “Plug It In” both recall “Lovesexy”-era Prince—fun, boisterous and border-line out of control. As with Prince, it sometimes seems that four minutes simply isn’t enough time for the Jaxx to explore and organize potential sound combinations, so that layer upon layer finds itself stuffed into place. When it works (as it often does here), it’s bold and exhilarating.
The title track, “Cish Cash”, tips its hat in the direction of electro-clash, yet does so without turning itself into fashion victim. Siouxsie Sioux, an inspired vocal choice, comes across like Martina Topley-Bird jacked-up (rather than stoned-out), her voice punctuated by the trademark stuttering beats, the “jacked” foreground rhythms from which the duo originally took their name.
In contrast, Me’shell Ndegeocello is likely the sultriest vocalist on the planet, bar none, and so it’s easy to understand why she would be asked to anchor “Right Here’s the Spot”. In truth, it’s one song that would doubtless work best on the dance floor. While it plays well enough outside of that environment, the song’s pace seems a touch too frenetic for Ndegeocello’s naturally languid delivery. Ndegeocello also features on the album closer, “Feels Like Home”, which moves along at something more akin to her usual velocity, and in which she consequently appears more comfortable.
It’s been several years now since Felix Buxton appeared on just about every TV talk show and music program across Europe, “the cat in the knit beanie cap”, talking up the debut album. Quite how or where the new album fits into the contemporary music landscape isn’t clear, but what’s recognizable and of import is that somewhat out of time, Basement Jaxx have produced their best sustained effort so far. Whether it finds a horde of listeners is questionable and almost beside the point. What matters is that they’ve finally made good on their promise, and delivered the record promised by their hype.