[26 August 2014]
If a Basement Jaxx album somehow found its way into the hands of an outer-space musicologist of the distant future, all context swept away by global warming Armageddon, she may very well make the educated guess that this was the most popular music of our culture. She’d elaborate that it is highly unlikely, given our crude technology, that any recorded sound could have stimulated the human nucleus accumbens more directly. In conclusion, she’d say, it’s quite danceable, and you know how those primitives loved to dance.
It’s hard not to think that she’d think that, anyway, if you’re like me and feel like that naïve excavator of the future any time you listen to the British producers’ best work. “Red Alert”, “Jus 1 Kiss”, and “Plug It In”, among many others, launch such an overwhelming assault on the dopamine receptors that it’s easy to forget that others might find it, well, overwhelming. In a way it’s too pop for the pop charts. “Where’s Your Head At” may have been on heavy rotation back when playing a Gary Numan sample over compressed beats could strike the sonic zeitgeist, but by and large, Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe’s method favors a kind of ecstatic overdetermination: a feast of hooks for audio hedonists, but tawdry noise to less patient ears.
2009’s indulgent, brilliant, thoroughly underloved Scars was the peak of this style. By contrast, Basement Jaxx has never sounded so stripped down as they do on Junto, their first album in five years. The giddiness is there, but spread frugally over streamlined rhythm genres both modish (deep house on “Unicorn”) and unabashedly not (Latin pop on “Mermaid of Salinas”). Uncharacteristic restraint abates the Jaxx cornucopia. Junto is Jaxx’s ascetic reformer, as the title suggests.
It also suggests a democratic spirit, which might explain the absence of previous albums’ star collabs, and definitely explains the multitudes singing a lot of the hooks. The lyrics hinge loosely on the theme of extraterrestrial life, but the aesthetic is wholly earthbound. Cheap synths, steel drums, and rainforest fauna summon the dubious specter of “world music”, only minus the phony multiculturalism and with a knowing wink: kitchen-sink appropriation has, after all, been the modus operandi of Basement Jaxx ever since the first flamenco strums of “Rendez Vu” and the Bollywood pastiche of the “Romeo” video. Junto opens and closes with pan-flutes and tribal choirs that put quotes on this globalism and blast it into kitsch orbit.
More than anything, the critical byline on Buxton and Ratcliffe emphasizes innovation. This is well-grounded—or as Armand Van Helden put it, they “took house music and fucked it in the ass”—but it’s also a double bind, now that EDM (and pop production in general) has rationalized the up-to-11 style Jaxx helped author, and hastened its stagnation. Small wonder that in this climate, “progressive” means either the sparseness of UK garage (Disclosure) or the outer limits of disco (Daft Punk). The way forward is through the past, it seems, and for Basement Jaxx, that means unearthing the roots below their blissful overgrowth.
That stratagem makes for most of the best tracks on Junto. Which is not altogether surprising. If Buxton and Ratcliffe were a party to delivering house beats to the rockist masses, wouldn’t they have had to be fluent in its pre-crossover form? “Unicorn” and “Never Say Never” sound like rehabbed spare parts from the Ministry of Sound and West End archives, lacquered with Jaxx’s unmistakable pop savvy. These are far and away the MVP singles. Then there’s “Sneaking Toronto”, a perpetual motion machine of sassy computers, tectonic breaks, and the freewheeling verbal stylings of the title’s namesake, Chicago house demigod DJ Sneak. A full-length in the mode of these tracks could easily be the equal of the Basement Jaxx masterpiece Rooty, and reinvent their sound in the process.
The more recombinant cuts are spottier. Organic percussion stampedes over plaintive dub in “Rock This Road”, the best among them (the left-field Sgt. Pepper-esque bridge notwithstanding). “Power to the People” and “Love Is at Your Side” strike a guilty-pleasure compromise between the World Cup version of “Wavin’ Flag” and Erasure. “Mermaid of Salinas” meanwhile winds itself up with a dancehall hype-man and a mean cumbia-house groove, only to pitch a tuneful, wordless chorus that overstays its welcome, and a Spanglish verse that’s dead on arrival.
Then there’s “Buffalo”, in which Mykki Blanco’s playful forceful rapping and stuttering jungle breaks deconstruct trap music. But A$AP Rocky and Skrillex already did that last year with “Wild for the Night” and ended up with an anthem on their hands. “Buffalo” is pretty academic by comparison. It’s good, but it can’t touch the transcendence of past Jaxx rap collabs like “Jump N’ Shout”, “Lucky Star”, or “Twerk”, all of which benefit from the charisma of established brands like Dizzee Rascal and Yo Majesty. Junto suffers from their absence. The almost-great electro-soul of “We Are Not Alone”, the workable acid house of “What’s the News”, and the faux-sexy tedium of “Something About You” (seemingly a holdover from Zephyr, their ambient companion disc to Scars) are hamstrung by tepid session divas. Lisa Kekaula of “Good Luck” and “Stay Close”, among others, is sorely missed.
Song-for-song, then, Junto isn’t an unqualified success, and might not impress any outer-space musicologists anytime soon. It does, however, show us Basement Jaxx in transition, trying to paint maximalist strokes from a minimalist palette. Based on the deceptively lean perfection of “Unicorn” alone—which finds my nuclear accumbens fully functional without overwhelming it at all—I surmise that Buxton and Ratcliffe will make that transition nicely.