21
Jun 01

THEY DON’T WANNA BE COY: Basement Jaxx – Rooty

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The eternal quandary: how to follow up a landmark debut album? If you’re Basement Jaxx, the answer is simple: make another one just as spectacular. It’s hard to believe that it’s now two years since Basement Jaxx’s Remedy seemed to revitalise house music, simply by reminding the dance community that — gasp — it was possible to create music that was clever and fun at the same time. Unluckily for us but perhaps luckily for the adventurous duo, it’s a lesson that didn’t appear to sink in. While more cerebral dance producers are finally embracing house’s sensuous beat in numbers previously unheard of, the populist “house revival” that the Jaxx helped instigate has done little but raise the profile of already entrenched musical orthodoxies: tasteful deep house, well-oiled disco cut-ups and sleek Ibiza floorfillers. Where was the revolution? Where was the raft of likeminded producers ready to follow the Jaxx in their quest to — as Armand Van Helden put it — take house music and fuck it in the ass? Notable exceptions such as the mighty Daft Punk aside, the pickings have been decidedly slim.

The sensation of a value gap is forcefully, thrillingly confirmed upon hearing the first single of the Jaxx’s new album Rooty, the delightful ‘Romeo’. A punchy vocal house number that draws equally from contemporary R&B’s robosoul and 2-step’s cheery rhythmic friction – and even surprising bursts of trance-like synth oscillations — ‘Romeo’ packs everything that’s currently missing from the commercial dance landscape into three and a half minutes of gorgeous pop perfection (not to mention confection). With disconcertingly direct vocals courtesy of Kele le Roc and its surprisingly emotional climax, ‘Romeo’ sounds less monolithic and all-embracing than, say ‘Red Alert’, but it’s correspondingly more startling, personal and affecting, not to mention a lot of fun.

It also only hints at the stylistic excesses the duo traipse through on the rest of the album, tapping everything from 2-step to eerie Gainsbourg pop to psychotic jungle-fuelled R&B. In its divergent wanderings, Rooty sounds very much like the colonisation of the alien planet first discovered on Remedy. Where on their debut the duo seemed anxious to fit every possible idea onto each individual song, here they’re content to choose just one or two concepts and take them to their logical conclusions, at times landing closer to pop and at others impossibly far away.

So, on the one hand, there’s the sparkling, euphoric disco of ‘Just One Kiss’ and the belting diva anthemics of ‘Do Your Thing’, both more straightforward and immediate than anything on Remedy. More often though the duo come off as even more schizophrenic and crazed than before, plunging depths of overheated desire rarely touched since Prince’s pioneering work in the eighties — check the fractured funk of ‘Breakaway’, or the album’s centrepiece, the dark porn-house of ‘Get Me Off’. Apparently the track was initially offered to Janet Jackson for her latest album, and you can see why she decided to pass. All dirge-bass, squealing rave riffs and pummelling house beats, “Get Me Off” replaces Janet with a succession of high-pitched, panicky singers pleading for a painful-sounding sexual fulfillment (“don’t wanna be coy/it’s time to get me off!”). Meanwhile a DJ/slavemaster whispers seductive commands: “give your body to the beat…free your body with me.” It’s hardly unsurprising that even the bondage-happy Janet might balk at the uncompromising luridness of it all.

In between these two extremes the duo explore a great deal of uncharted territory — “Where’s Your Head At” is the heavy metal/house hybrid Armand Van Helden has been trying to perfect for years, although he wouldn’t have thought to include the punk hollers and philosophical ragga chants that Basement Jaxx throw in as a matter of course. “I Want U” puts R&B through the ringer, gatecrashing the song with sudden bursts of furious drum & bass pounding, and distorting the curiously British-accented diva to within an inch of her life, her vocal finally reduced to a wordless, psychotic looped tick, like a love-struck alarm bell. At other times the music simply defies description or attempts to pigeonhole: how to define the lascivious, rolling stop-start rhythms of “SFM”? Avant 2-step? Latin Dancehall?

It goes without saying that Rooty is unlikely to match the sort of seismic impact that Remedy created two years ago. The world has grown accustomed to the Basement Jaxx aesthetic, and the blueprint laid down by the first album hasn’t been replaced so much as expanded upon. Still, when you’re so far in front of the competition it takes a while for the rest of the world to catch up, and two years on Basement Jaxx still comfortably outpace everything else on offer when it comes to crafting wildly fun dance music. On the evidence of Rooty they can rest comfortably for another two years. They’ve certainly earned it.

Tim Finney, 21 June 2001

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