When we finally getting around to trying to sum up the “sound” of the first decade of the new millennium, all we’ll need is just two words: Basement Jaxx.
Now, this isn’t because the Jaxx have conquered the airwaves with hit after ubiquitous hit (hell, the group was dropped from their label Astralwerks after they won a Grammy for their 2004 set Kish Kash), invented entirely new subgenres, or created songs so iconic that every indie-rock group in the world wants to cover them mere seconds after they get released. No, this is a group who’s most mainstream cultural appearance so far has been licensing out some tracks from their 2001 disc Rooty for a couple montage sequences in the film Bend It Like Beckham.
Yet when we actually stop for a second and begin thinking about how media has transformed since the advent of the Y2K scare, it’s eerie how much the Basement Jaxx embody so much of what has changed. Napster — taking its last breaths at the start of the millennium — and the P2P revolution wound up changing our very relationship with music (and singles especially), eventually shying the world away from carefully-constructed albums and instead focusing more on the importance of the individual song. As such, singles became star-studded affairs, most newspapers going as far as to alter their “top songs in the nation” lists to include a “featuring” column, simply due to the fact the number of “featured” artists on any given radio hit had damn near tripled in the last 10 years. Genres cross-pollinated at an alarming pace. The floodgates of MP3 culture opened up the door for digital mashups, allowing artists like Dangermouse, Girl Talk, and Hood Internet to fold pop music in on itself, taking the familiar (and sometimes the ridiculously popular) and reinterpreting them in drastic and daring new ways. The dominance of blog culture allowed just about anyone to become their own media outlet, and with all the streaming digital content that is now available to us (for free) with only a few mouse clicks, it seems that our daily culture is more jam-packed with information and entertainment than ever before. It is for this reason that the Basement Jaxx — big beat U.K. dance maestros who cram every single possible sonic idea they can into every square inch of their trademark four-on-the-floor club anthems — sum up the sound of this decade better than just about any other artist.
Yet much has changed since 1999, when the Jaxx unleashed their instant-classic of a debut album Remedy (which was ranked as the #1 album of the year by at least three different U.K. publications). While Remedy was still a (relatively) straightforward dance record, it wasn’t until Rooty that we began to see the group’s weirder side emerge: songs with stop-start synth sputters (lead single “Romeo“), Gary Numan samples (the iconic “Where’s Your Head At?“), and their now-standard sped-up Muppet-like vocals on more than few tracks. It wasn’t a perfect album, but it showed a group eager to break out of the archetypes of the dance genre in order to create something new and exciting …
… which they did, with Kish Kash, the single best distillation of their sound and one of the greatest dance albums ever made. Each track had an album’s worth of ideas in it, and even the cameos by the likes of Siouxsie Sioux, JC Chasez, and Dizzee Rascal wound up being overshadowed by the group’s daring production work and remarkable sense of melody. Kish Kash had an insanely high replay value, simply because a single listen didn’t allow you to make out the hundreds of sonic details that lined every song. Yet, more critically than that, the group showed that even when perfecting their own brand of “insanity pop”, they could also be vulnerable as well (as evidenced by yearning, heartbreaking track “If I Ever Recover”). It isn’t too much of a surprise, then, that 2006’s Crazy Itch Radio couldn’t help but be considered a disappointment by contrast. Though anchored by some spectacular singles (“Take Me Back to Your House” chief among them), it showed the group stretching out far beyond the comfort zone, indulging in lounge-jazz excursions, stoner-pop experiments, and — for the first time in about five years — some flat-out dull and uninteresting tracks (closers “Keep Keep On” and “U R On My Mind” showed Jaxx at their most forgettable).
As such, Basement Jaxx’s fifth album — Scars — actually has something to prove: did the Jaxx simply misstep with Crazy Itch Radio, or have they actually fallen off their visionary course?
Though superior to Crazy Itch Radio in many ways, Scars is not a masterpiece on the level of Remedy or Kish Kash. What’s both unique and frustrating about Scars is how this is the first time that we hear the duo reference some of their earlier hits, creating distinct sonic echoes to their back catalog but failing to innovate in the way that each of their albums managed to do so in the past. Though the idea of Jaxx members Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton resting on their laurels for a bit certainly doesn’t sound like a bad idea (who wouldn’t love a direct sequel to Kish Kash?), their drive to push boundaries is what ultimately made their music so adventurous to begin with, and — as Scars readily proves — a Jaxx on cruise control is not the Jaxx we’ve grown to love over the years.
Things start off promising enough with the Kelis-assisted title track, where the Jaxx — carrying on their tradition of opening their albums in spectacular fashion — wind up pumping a full-blown choir through a wah pedal, making for one of the most disorienting, insane, and flat-out jaw-dropping uses of texture that the group has ever done. This is then followed by lead single “Raindrops” — an astounding song wherein the Jaxx (singing the track themselves) use a simple, unassuming synth line to help paint the tone’s vaguely sexual themes before the bottom gives out and we’re treated to a gigantic chorus, which can only be described as getting gut-punched by a megaton blast of bass synths, all of this making for one of the most aggressive Jaxx songs since Rooty‘s psycho-sexual classic “Get Me Off”.
Yet once the strutting “She’s No Good” begins kicking into gear, we begin to notice a few strange features about Scars. Most notably, the group’s interludes — previously a Jaxx trademark — are nowhere to be found. While at first this may not seem like much of a big deal, we very gradually realize that by not having a short “breather” inbetween songs, things begin to blur together somewhat. By going full-throttle ahead, tracks like the Santigold-assisted raga/rock hybrid “Saga” and the Hawaiian-influenced Amp Fiddler ballad “A Possibility” wind up sounding a bit duller given their overly-hyperactive surroundings. The faux-radio commercials during Crazy Itch Radio, the vague God-talk during Kish Kash, etc. — these goofy little interludes (in retrospect) gave each Jaxx disc their own strange sense of unity, on top of allowing us to catch our breath between floor-burners. Not the case with Scars, though, which proves to be “relentless” in the bad way.
Then again, a simple grievance like not having interludes wouldn’t be as much of a problem were it not for the fact that there are moments on Scars that are simply a chore to listen to. Though the matching of the Jaxx and Yoko Ono is a positively inspired idea on paper, who would’ve guessed it would’ve created something painfully dull as “Day of the Sunflowers (We March On)”, a dry faux-anthem that never does anything with its tired bassline or — for that matter — Ono’s own unique voice. Even the energetic rapper Yo! Majesty gets the short end of the stick with “Twerk”, a track that relies too heavily on the rubbery-synth effect the Jaxx had already used on Rooty‘s retro-leaning “Crazy Girl”, and — were it not for its catchy “shama-lama-la” vocal effect in the chorus — this track may very well have been considered disposable.
Yet the biggest criticism that can be levied against Scars is quite simple: the album is too long by two tracks. Were this a sparse, 11-track affair, Scars would’ve ended on a perfect note with “Stay Close”, a collaboration with the Jaxx’ secret Ace-in-the-hole: Bellray’s vocalist Lisa Kekaula, who sang on previous Jaxx singles “Good Luck” (from Kish Kash) and the stellar “U Don’t Know Me” (from their 2005 Singles compilation). She’s brought back into the fold to perform a minimalist, dry, and downright sultry number made up almost entirely of pipe organ sounds and Kekaula’s expressive voice, the whole thing coming off as a kindred cousin to Kish Kash‘s gorgeous Me’Shell NdegéOcello-assisted closer “Feels Like Home”. Kekaula even manages to make a line about keeping zombies outside sound like the sweetest come-on you’ve ever heard, a testament to both her talents and the romantic atmosphere that the Jaxx were able to craft this time out. It’s a perfect torch song for the Digital Age, a song with beauty and grace that is almost entirely tarnished by the tracks that follow: the waltz-time stylistic mishmash “D.I.S.tractionz” and the frightfully hackneyed “Gimme Somethin’ True”, tracks that would’ve made interesting B-side fodder but simply destroy the mood here.
Even with these criticisms firmly in mind, the moments that shine on Scars rank as some of the best tunes that the Jaxx have ever done, outstripping some of the highlights on Crazy Itch Radio, even. “My Turn” features a fantastic turn by former Test Icicles player Lightspeed Champion, and it brilliantly meshes simple acoustic strumming with thumping synth breaks and a positively joyous string crescendo near the end, making for a midtempo number that isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be a ballad or a dance song, we the listener getting caught up in the push and pull between the extremes. The wonderfully silly “What’s a Girl to Do?”, by contrast, brings back the Balkan horn sections from Crazy Itch‘s “Hey U” and incorporates them into a track that sounds like a radical dance revisioning of the theme song from The Triplets of Belleville (of all things). Throw in a thunderous Sam Sparro-assisted glitz-rock single (“Feelings Gone”), and you wind up with a dance album that’s both unclassifiable and quintessentially Jaxx-ian in nature.
Though the Jaxx will continue to rack up left-field hits and critical acclaim for years to come, both Scars and Crazy Itch Radio show that the group’s innovative streak has come to an end. Though they can still produce utterly awe-inspiring tracks now and then (could “Raindrops” been created by anyone else but the Jaxx?), it appears that Basement Jaxx are struggling under the pressure to come up with another stone-cold masterpiece, these last two albums proving to be mere photocopies of what made Kish Kash so great to begin with. Though the Jaxx may very well embody the “sound” of the decade, they’re still struggling to craft a work defines it. They’ve come pretty darn close before, and they may very well do so in the future, but with Scars, the Jaxx have gotten too caught up in trying top themselves. But hey: there’s always next decade, right?