Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Spin, summer 2001

by Simon Reynolds

When Basement Jaxx's debut album Remedy materialized in 1999, dance music had arrived at something of an impasse. All the outer limits of post-rave music had been reached a few years earlier. It was hard to see how drum'n'bass could convolute rhythm any morer without tying dancers limbs in knots; hardcore gabba had taken concussive beats, distorted noise, and sheer velocity to life-threatening extremes; minimal techno had anorexically paring itself down to the brink of non-existence. In the absence of some new drug-technology synergy, the only way forward appeared to involve systematic cultivation of undeveloped terrain within these frontiers. Hence the spate of inbetween-sounds like tech-house, speed garage, progressive trance, nu-skool breaks, and other hybrids, which convulse committed clubbers into pro- and anti- factions, but understandably leave outsiders scratching their heads and wondering what the fuss is all about.

There was another alternative: frolicing through dance music's own back pages. And so Daft Punk's brand of "filter disco" simultaneously harked back to and renovated house's Seventies roots; big beat slammed Sixties surf music, ska, and garage punk into old skool hip hop and acid house; others, from Les Rhythmes Digitales to i/F, rediscovered Eighties electro and synthpop. And it was all great fun, while not exactly delivering the future-rush and shock-of-the-now that, say, jungle transmitted in its prime. And then there was Basement Jaxx with their house-not-house cornucopia that pick'n'mixed freely across all these options and more. What's great about Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton's sound is the way they go from cartoon disco like Deelite at their groovalicious peak to sick drug-noise perfect for humid murky catacombs; from tunes that resemble Prince's Sign of the Times if he'd come from Chicago rather than Minneapolis, to samba-house beamed in from that Brazil-as-utopia that haunts the imagination of many British dance producers. And yet every track has that special Jaxx signature.

Like Prince's Paisley Park fantasy, Jaxx-music conjures the sense of a freakadelic demi-monde you'd just love to inhabit full-time for real. In that spirit, the queerly titled Rooty is named in homage to Buxton & Ratcliffe's most recent South London club. Album opener "Romeo" is so Sheila E you just have to smile, and "Breakaway" makes me flash on "Baby Wants To Ride" by Jamie Principle, a long-lost house pioneer with an unhealthy Prince obsession. With its broken beats and dirty bass, "S.F.M. (Sexy Feline Machine)" is one of the few tracks here that substantiates a rumored 2step garage direction, and it's nowhere near as full-on foray into that London R&B-meets-house style as Remedy's "U Can't Stop Me." So far, so groovy. But there's a side to Basement Jaxx that's a bit too ditzy-ditty and quirky-verging-on-twee, and "Jus 1 Kiss", I'm afraid to say, just makes me think of Wings: intricately ornamented, but as sickly and unsatisfying as a meringue. "Broken Dreams" also has McCartneyesque shades of clever-clever craft, but for some reason its confection of Spanish horns and jaunty bassline makes for a lovely slice of happy-sad. It's also one of several tracks where a weird effect on the vocal makes it sound glossy and faded at the same time--sort of like, if plastic could rust.

Midway through, Rooty takes a timely turn from silly love songs to dark dirty lust. "I Want U" has the awkward, angular almost-ugliness of Jaxx's most compelling music, e.g. Remedy's "Same Old Show". Singer Mandy's exaggerated London accent ("I've bin finking") recalls UK punkettes like Honey Bane and Hazel O'Connor. "Get Me Off" is a hot 'n' horny pummel, all panting breath and brooding oozy bass swelling and ebbing like oily surf after a tanker spill. "Where's Your Head At" rocks harder still, with a bombastic synth-riff that recalls Never Mind the Bollocks (but is actually sampled from Gary Numan's "M.E.") and a jeering thug-chorus that's pure Oi! These three brutal blasts of headbanger house make for a neat parallel with Daft Punk's inspired merger of disco and FM soft-rock (ELO, Supertramp, Frampton, Buggles) on Discovery.

After the monsterfart electro of "Crazy Girl", though, Rooty rather peters out, with the ill-advised juke-joint Dixieland flavor of "Do Your Thing", all piano comping and diva scat, and "All I Know"--winsome, wistful, slight. Despite its many delights, there is a feeling emanating from Rooty that Basement Jaxx didn't really know how to top Remedy. When you've made your reputation through impurism and hyphenated hybrids, you can't really scale back, the only way forward is further into ever more spectacular and farfetched fusion. And the risk is that you'll throw so many things into the pot you end up with the sonic equivalent of that poly-ethnic fusion cuisine so trendy nowadays. Buxton & Ratcliffe have such impeccable taste that they've mostly avoided that calamity. But Rooty's sheer brevity, at 43 minutes, suggests loss of confidence, or even that a number of tracks were pulled at the last minute owing to last-minute jitters.

If they're looking for tips, I'd say jettison any remaining Latin influences or notions of "jazzy" and instead build on the lumpen thump of "I Want U"/'Get Me Off"/"Where's Your Head At". That glorious sequence adds weight to the theory that dance music, in the absence of strong influences from or secret affinities with rock, tends to the pale and uninteresting. Acid house, after all, got its name because it reminded co-creator and Sabbath-fan Marshall Jefferson of acid rock. Indeed whenever purists get worried about dance music going awry they always raise the specter of "heavy metal house". But everybody knows clubland cognoscenti got shit for brains.

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