Jaxx of Clubs
The Prince fantasy: We got up to Paisley Park at about 2:00 a.m. We were juiced. Peaches had stayed up all night painting the school bus we rented and her thighs and arms were all purple and lavender. The parking lot was empty and we weren't even sure if he was there. This whole thing was pretty much an act of absurd, idiotic faith--we had, as they say, suspended the ethical. This only made it sweeter. We marched up to the front door carrying our massive signs--EMBRACE RELEVANCE! YOU'RE STILL HECK-A-SLAMMIN'! GET UR FREAK ON! We chanted until we were def: "Purple funkadelia! Purple funkadelia!" Boutros said he thought he saw a light switch on in one of the upstairs windows and someone joked that maybe he was gonna invite us all in for starfish and coffee. And we went nuts until a couple of bodyguards, dudes with barrel chests and Afros and cashmere pants, came out and told us to leave or they were gonna call the cops.
On the drive back home from Paisley, we listened to the Basement Jaxx. Each song made us imagine, "Hey, what if Prince was a house guy from Chicago?" "What if he was a two-tone guy from Birmingham?" "What if he called up Armand Van Helden instead of Chaka Khan?"
Rooty (XL/Astralwerks), the second record from London house-etc. duo the Basement Jaxx--a.k.a. Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton--imagines more purple pleasure than the little imp will ever give us again. Then again, at various points it's also the best Beastie Boys record, the best new-wave/disco, the best Chicago house or electro. But it's never just one of those things at once, and those styles never show up in the form you remember from back in yer roller-rink youth. I simply chose to begin with Prince because I'm from Minneapolis and I like my cloying little fantasy. You can have yours, or the Jaxx's. They got a million of 'em.
Lead track/lead single/lead-me-off-a-bridge-and-I'll-go-happily "Romeo" is the oldest fantasy in dance-pop: club-cum-street-cum-radio-cum-universalist come-hither. It's purple funk as club thump, and a knee-weakening "You used to be my Romeo" delivered by one Kele Le Roc as she flees a thuggy Cameo chorus. The cool thing about Kele is that she is as much Britney as Sheila E., and the track is as silicon as it is silk: sunshine, rain, joy, and pain boiling over with that raceless-placeless sense of delusional possibility you'd get from peak Motown and early Madonna. Everybody everywhere everything all the time already.
The Jaxx have been here before. 1999's "Red Alert" and "Remedy," orgasmocratic mash-ups of diva house and Timbaland-sliding R&B, was an epiphany after years of tension between actual dance music and radio music, even if they failed to bridge the commercial gap between these categories. Rooty pretends that the gap never existed. It imagines that the line between high and low--between kitsch and glitch--between your Slinky bracelets and your baby Ts--is just some construct waiting to be torched.
This concept might not sound so radical to anyone who has ever listened to Radio K, but in dance music it has pea-brained puritans in a moral uproar, sharpening old saws about "cheesiness" only to saw off their asses. In dance music, cheesy usually means easy--easy access, easy pleasure--and Rooty is all about the pleasure plunge. Rooty is utopian in the Paradise Garage sense of a clubland in heaven (it's named after the Jaxx's new South London club), in the Paisley Park sense of a playground of the mind, and in the Thomas More sense of proposing a frictionless future.
After "Romeo" gets you ten feet high, "Breakaway" jacks your body with more Cameo-house as a little voice right out of "Dirty Mind" whines, "I gotta get away/I'm working for the same old shit each and every damn day." "SFM (Sexy Feline Machine)" is another Prince-pump, complete with orgasm coos, clumps of syncopated bump, and prurient voiceover. "Jus 1 Kiss" cools off the beats and gets a little florid, as is the tinkly "Broken Dreams," which features confectionery mariachi horns and tippy-toe beats.
The softness of these tracks leaves room for their female vocalists to get into their roles in a way that's rare for house, where ululating divas often have all the emotional connection of trained seals. They're no Corin Tuckers, but as meta-Wendy-and-Lisas, they play a fun shell game with clubland sexual politics.
If these songs are cutesy little tricksters, "Get Me Off" doesn't play games. Its dirty bass and bully beats as a trio of Darling Nikkis turn the title phrase into a molten mantra. Then the tension between slammin' and sensual blows up into the sublime. "Where's Your Head At" is higgidy boom-bast: punk-house that mashes up Beastie Boys, two-tone, 2step, and a Gary Numan sample, all spun mad in the Jaxx's ahistorical Cuisinart. Strike a pose. Juxtapose.
The rest of the record is gravy. The spindly electro "Crazy Girl" throws in a few notes of Purple Rain guitar to keep the rock thread twirling. Then the Latin piano vamp "Do Your Thing" scats us into the dolorous, wistful pop of "All I Know," which leaves me thinking these guys might come up a bit soft if they ever tried writing a "Ballad of Dorothy Parker." Then again, Jolly Rogers Nelson would probably never know what to do with Armand Van Helden, so maybe this is where my pop utopianism unravels a bit.
The great divide between dance and pop is authenticity: With looped voices and digitally displaced sentiments, dance music denies our "soul"-derived insistence on a subjective "I" dying for an objectified "U." (Even a diva crying, "I need you," can seem more actor than lover.) That's why 2step's house/R&B/jungle fusion--which treats the human voice like one more element in the mix--gets nowhere in the U.S., and trance's nu-age swvooosh, which pretends dance music should ignore emotion and simply "funktion," fills airplane hangars. Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers tried to transcend the emotional issue by blowing up dance music until it felt like classic rock, but both got cold feet. The Chems went back to their techno roots and Fatboy, rumor has it, intentionally sabotaged his celebrity with his limp last album. And so we strive for our own utopias: The space where your head is at is always sweeter than the space it's taking up.
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