Basement Jaxx

Crazy Itch Radio

(XL; 2006)

By Mark Abraham | 14 September 2006

1999: alas, poor basement victim of indie circumstance. Your Remedy, catapulted by Astralwerks at an indie community grown thick with electronica fans in a post-“Groove is in the Heart” world, bouncing straight back at you off a wall erected from B-List Ninja Tune albums and the earmarked catalogues of independent jungle and drum ‘n bass labels. Your Remedy, a thick and pulsating house album commercially embraced as part of the Moby/Fatboy big beat craze, summarily shat upon by critics due to their decade of training from Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (1991) and its concomitant and proliferated post-house progeny. Your Remedy, called a pat rehearsal of house tropes mixed with a slight tinge of sex appeal and some fancy track suits, best known for selling coke…both kinds.

2001: alas, poor cultural victim of global circumstance. Your Rooty, a Remedy-but-with-vocals, mid-September release muted by tragedy, assassinated by those same critics who had thought you were a flash in the sub-Daft Punk pan. They asked, “how can people make music this trashy?” And they asked with the same fervor that they chided, “how can these Brits be so cheery at this point in time?” They scoffed, “could there be a cheesier song than ‘Romeo’?” They balked, “could there be a more deplorable desecration of Gary Numan than ‘Where’s Your Head At’?” They reneged, “uh…I guess that gorilla is cute.” Your Rooty caused tears, the clutching of rare Frankie Knuckles wax, the first items bought and sold on a fledgling eBay in the preceding years.

2003: hoorah, sweet benefactors of indie circumstance. In the aftermath of tragedy, a sea change began to occur. The Rapture and the Liars wanted to play dance music on actual instruments, DFA became everybody’s favorite label, Ninja Tune started to put out crap, dance music with no “dance” was suddenly considered complicated and obtuse and nobody liked difficult stuff anymore and so the fertile domestic experimental fields of electronica were salted and moved offshore to small European labels that required imposing import costs; in the meantime, people searched for mood-lightening music in this new post-9/11 world. But most importantly for your Kish Kash, the biggest change was in the critical community itself. A new generation of indie critics, the first who had spent high school and undergrad attending sock hops and dances and pub nights and clubs where they danced to hip hop and R&B with the exact kind of overwrought production that you pioneered in house music, realized that while it was super fun to sing along with “if my train falls off the track / pick it up pick it up pick it up,” they wanted something that wouldn’t bruise their cred so much. Your Kish Kash was hailed as a glorious third album in a string of suddenly glorious albums, making Remedy and Rooty a revelation in reverse, making Kish Kash the remedy for your rooty house’s acceptance. Your Kish Kash, “by Bonnie Prince” they said, had come through where OutKast hadn’t, updating Prince and house and life for everybody to enjoy in 2003. Your music that an older generation had seen as rote, derivative, pedantic, and calculated was fit for Top Whatever Lists on the simple notion that it was “fun.” Your entire discography had arrived.

2006: excuse the history, but the Jaxx are finally a victim of their own circumstance, I think. A community was waiting for this album, and that’s in part because even people who hate them think they’re excellent producers and even people who love them don’t think they make amazing, revelatory music. Across that divide, everybody likes dancing to them, which is precisely why their music has survived these changes in our collective tastes — Simon and Felix have always known exactly how to pop heads and hearts and feet with the most contagious, syrupy, messy dancefloor shit ever. Which makes both sides right, in a way, which means all of their albums deserve 70s rather than the 30s or 90s they’re invariably given, but that creates another problem: what did change over the years was the complexity and diversity of the ways they could do those simple things. If Kish Kash knocked so high because it hit a cultural nerve that demanded dance music, it only did so at the precise moment the Jaxx wielded enough clout to guest a spate of popular singers and get enough studio time to wonk their way through grifting several genres. In other words, they created a style for themselves; not a style even their most ardent supporters could argue was a sign of tangible, off-the-dance-floor legitimacy, but a style nonetheless. With baited breath, then, we assumed this three-year hiatus must result in one of the most whacked-out, guest-listy, genre-implosive, wicked-club-album insanities ever. And now we’d laud it as “hyphy.”

Nope. Apparently, Felix and Simon have decided that they should not make dance music anymore, concentrating on the genres they’re aping rather than grafting those skins onto the original house blasts that made their music the equivalent of crack (or ‘ludes, I guess, given how they’ve loved that suffix into the ground). Far from achieving that goal, their experiments have only caused them to stumble off the path they’ve tread, finally tripping to one side of the thin line between smash and schmaltz. And I don’t want to be too pessimistic here—I defy anybody to claim that anything on Rooty stands up to the sheer slush-power of “Romeo” or that they actually listen the second half of Kish Kash, so it’s not like those albums were glorious back-to-back barn-burners, either—but when “Hush Boy” is their weakest single in years and it’s the only thing I’d even think about sequencing, then what’s the point? All you end up with is a series of ludicrous lyrics that would make Rihanna blush and the stock Basement Jaxx production trick collection.

Plus, while most of the songs are fine, the whole thing just blurs. “Hey U” neuters Robyn’s personality while trying to stuff as many Balkan horn riffs into its shirt as possible; the thing’s just busting, replete with a soccer chant in the middle, but if there’s a memorable vocal or musical melody, it’s buried dead. “Take Me Back to Your House” has Martina Bang pleading for sex over a half-assed country lick; the lyrics compete with B44 for puniliciousness but who cares because: skip! “On The Train” features the stupidest house jazz breakdown I’ve ever heard. It’s like the “jazz” band they get to play “jazz” music for sitcoms, but it’s just a walking bassline. “Run 4 Cover” tries to alternate between playing at being M.I.A. and recapturing the Dizzee Rascal-led “Lucky Star,” highlight of Kish Kash. It fails, again because the Jaxx seem too interested in playing with the pieces of the puzzle rather than fitting them into their beat. “Smoke Bubbles” starts the slow portion of the album, and I fell asleep the first time, so…look, I don’t even want to talk about the rest of the slow jams, ‘cause what’s the point?

Which leaves “Hush Boy,” fascinated with the juxtaposition of smooth lead vocals with Bobcat Goldthwaitisms, incredibly obvious horn arrangements, and throwing foreign-sounding production (i.e. bongos) into the crevices. Vula Malinga fares well on the vocals, evincing sincerity in a way most Jaxx vocalists can’t because of the stupidity of the words, and Biz Markie pops up to offer color commentary. He doesn’t have what the song needs, but all in all it’s a decent single for a year lacking this kind of ornate orchestration. Basically, if you like the Jaxx, you’ll like this song okay. But you might as well wait for it on the dancefloor, because nobody actually listens to this saccharine shit at home, right?