When you’ve been proclaimed the saviors of house music, what do you do for an encore? Given the critical accolades heaped on their debut album Remedy, that’s pretty much the challenge Simon Radcliffe and Felix Burton of Basement Jaxx found themselves faced with. Their solution to the sophomore dilemma is Rooty, a pure party record that’s even less of a house album than was the boldly eclectic Remedy. Rooty uses house as just one color in a wide palette of dancefloor hues, resulting in a record that is inconsistent but far more adventurous than most other dance music releases this year.
Like Remedy, Rooty is either a brilliantly innovative record, or an unlistenable mess, depending on your point of view. To my ear it’s somewhere in between, the work of two very talented house producers and songwriters with a taste for old-school sounds that’s sometimes entertaining, but often unfortunate.
The Jaxx got their start as warehouse DJs in Brixton, spinning Chicago house and UK garage, both of which figure heavily in the album’s opening track, “Romeo”. It’s a signature Jaxx dancefloor anthem, complete with a sassy disco-diva vocal, cornball lyrics, and cheesy new wave synths and background vocals that quickly establish the duo’s obsession with retro kitsch. More old-school sounds color “Breakaway”, which has the synth-laden latter-day disco vibe of Cameo, and “SFM”, a electro-funk bump ‘n’ grind session straight out of Prince’s mid-‘80s ouevre. A lot of this stuff crosses the line into pure camp, especially the helium-soaked lead vocal on “Breakaway”, but the Jaxx have sufficient songwriting chops to keep things from going completely off the deep end. Just imagine how awful the psychedelic ‘60s garage-pop ditty “Broken Dreams” could have been in lesser hands—instead, it’s a sweet interlude between the straight ahead funky house of “Jus 1 Kiss” and the herky-jerky electro-punk of “I Want U”, which sounds a little like No Doubt trying to do a Naked Eyes cover (or maybe it’s the other way around).
Messrs. Radcliffe and Burton are obviously having a lot of fun with their funk/R&B/electro stylings, but Rooty‘s best moments are still those infused with a healthy dose of house. By far the album’s peak moment is “Where’s Your Head At”, a shrieking piece of dirty house that combines the frat-party vibe of Fatboy Slim’s best work with the noisy basslines, whistles and unidentified flying sound effects of old UK acid house (the track’s gleefully over-the-top vocals come courtesy of house DJs Junior Sanchez and Eric Morillo, obviously thrilled at the chance to step out from behind the decks). Other standout tracks include the irrepressibly bouncy “Jus 1 Kiss” and the heavy-breather “Get Me Off”, a mix of hard funk and booty house that’s sure to accompany many a dry hump session on the dancefloor. Even on this tune, however, the Jaxx’s penchant for tinny retro synths intrudes too much for my taste. These guys never met a Casio keyboard they didn’t like.
And that, finally, is my biggest beef with Basement Jaxx—every time they lock into a great groove, they have a compulsive need to wink through it or derail it altogether with a heavy dose of old-school hokum. They’re really hung up, for example, on electro-funk, a genre that was pretty much played out by the late ‘80s and has resisted efforts at resuscitation by some of today’s most talented artists (see Beck, for starters). On some tracks, like “SFM”, they get away with the electro-funk sound, but “Crazy Girl” is just plain awful, watered-down R&B that even the Gap Band would sniff at. The Jaxx aren’t quite as guilty of wallowing in retro cheese as Daft Punk, but like their French counterparts, their kitchen-sink production approach seems almost apologetic, a way of saying to the masses, “Yes, we know dance music is silly, but c’mon, it’s sorta fun, too, isn’t it?” To my mind, really great dance music needs no apologies, and house music never needed saving in the first place. The Basement Jaxx are gifted songwriters, with a great ear for booty-shaking grooves, but the future of house music they ain’t.