A New Lease on House

British sensations Basement Jaxx bring the mojo back to disco

Kids and their music these days--so restless, so unable to sit still. Take that stodgiest of electronic dance styles, house. Used to be that if a house producer established a little riff on record, the lick would stay in place for up to seven minutes at a time. Sure, these house builders could monkey with the sound. One entire subgenre, acid-house, was based wholly on screwing with the pitch-shifter of an outmoded analogue synthesizer (the Roland TB-303). But tradition held that most house--even the underground, experimental stripe--stayed the course melodically. Once a producer established a motif on a track, it tended to stay put, beginning to end. (Well, at the tune's beginning and end, anyway--most house tracks open and close with a minute or so of pure beat. These are DJ tools after all.)

House's formal reliability was no liability, of course, and it's been synonymous with dance floors since the Bush Administration. But as with modern R&B, whose upscale aspirations house often emulates, the past few years have seen some seriously weird, complex stuff splatter the windows of the genre's laboratories. What's more, the new, experimental wave is getting noticed. In London we've seen the delirious boom of speed garage--think house crafted with jungle's airy sensibilities. That phenomenon has been steadily supplanted by the twitchy, hypersyncopated tap-dancing of "two-step" garage, which feels more like a variant on Timbaland's itchy-feet productions than a continuation of house's straight-four boom.

Jaxx of one trade: Basement Jaxx members Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxto
Jaxx of one trade: Basement Jaxx members Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxto

But now come Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton, a pair of South Londoners calling themselves Basement Jaxx, who seem entirely uninterested in house rules. They began in the mid-Nineties by emulating the disco-flavored, cavernous sound of Chicago-based giants DJ Sneak and Gene Farris, but soon hit upon a signature style all their own: Jaxx tracks don't just itch, they rip off their clothes, mutating like musical viruses.

For years the Jaxx aesthetic has had as much to do with dub reggae as with house: It's a true mixing-board music, where the rhythm locks into place while the top elements shift like so many discarded skin cells. Even their least jumpy tracks have plenty going on over the steady thump--check a straightforward stomper like 1997's "Set Yo Body Free," collected on last year's superb Atlantic Jaxx Recordings: A Compilation. Hooked on a rough-sounding Vocoderized recitation of the song's title, the tune moves through a variety of filtered noise effects and weird, thereminlike keyboard parts, before climaxing with frantic shouts of--what else?--"Basement Jaxx! Basement Jaxx!" Like much of the rest of this comp, it's another joyous disco soundtrack for January 1 computer buggery.

An apparent fin-de-siècle sensibility may be what most connects Basement Jaxx with the mindset of American hip hoppers head-bobbing to Busta Rhymes. But that doesn't begin to explain the frazzled beauty of the aptly titled Remedy. It's as if the new album had the house boys scrambling to encode as much information within themselves as possible before their hard drives go kaput. Indeed, the music can be so dense that it's hard to get a grip on its contours. While the skewed Atlantic Jaxx remained fairly polished, Remedy is rough and open. Disorienting from the start, the kickoff "Rendez-Vu" gives its "I've got you in my heart/I've got you in my head" chorus to a garrulous, loose-limbed robot but rides a Latin-flavored beat and galloping Spanish guitar strum. A synthesized string arrangement, balanced between disco drama and wigged-out psychedelia, forms the backdrop.

What should we make of this mélange? It's easy to dismiss these excesses as gestures toward alternative, but the cut's insistent shiftiness seems to work just fine on the gay-club dance floor. No one I've observed seems to miss a step when, four minutes in, an ostinato performed on what sounds like synthesized woodwinds comes bubbling out of the background for a few bars, then disappears, not to be heard again. Is it a nod to flamenco-flavored pop? Or a piss-take of it? Who cares?

Even better is "Red Alert," the first single and a song that sounds like a subtle response to last year's Propellerheads hit, "History Repeating." That big-beating track's conceit was pretty explicit, voiced by guesting singer Shirley Bassey: Look, it said, we're bringing the past into the future--got that? "Red Alert," doesn't bog itself down with telling you what it's doing: It celebrates the past and brings it into the future by effortlessly erasing the lines separating them. At first, the song sounds like pure P-Funk homage, hooking on a soil-shaking, Bootsy Collins-style slap-bass line and featuring a background chant that deliberately evokes any number of Uncle Jam's Army responses to George Clinton's calls to arms. Note, too, the Clintonesque minimalist-as-maximalist trick of making what is nearly a bum's haiku (six short lines) signify like a Tin Pan Alley pop song. "It's a catastrophe," sings Blue James in echo. "But don't worry, don't panic/Ain't nothing goin' on but history."

The song has even met the embrace of Top 40 radio, a cultural crossover that can thank both those maligned frat-boy slims of big beat and the promotional diligence of Ratcliffe's and Buxton's patrons, Astralwerks. I don't know that Remedy as a whole will meet the same kind of mainstream hunger. Busyness without a star isn't a proven commercial panacea by a long shot. And most Americans simply won't get British ska appropriations such as the brilliantly playful retooling of Selector's "On My Radio" for Remedy's herky-jerky "Same Old Show." Still, even if the Jaxx return to the basement in a few seconds from now, they occupy a moment in dance music as exciting as their own grooves. A generation weaned on raves and alternawhatever with the attention span of a newly birthed flea has chosen them as (arguably) house music's first superstars, and chosen wisely. The same old show is, simply put, history.

 
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