If the Chemical Brothers represent dance music at its most intelligent -- and Daft Punk represents the genre's cheesy, crowd-pleasing appeal -- then Basement Jaxx most assuredly offers the art form at its emotional, sensual, visceral best.
Remedy, the U.K. duo's debut after years of DJing in London, flowed cohesively from track to track, boasting an impressive display of propulsive singles. Equally skillful with vocoder silliness and catchy soul, Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe looked around the dance hall and saw a collection of interesting individuals -- some needy, some ecstatic, some hopeful -- and Remedy gave voice to the subconscious desires of those nameless people out there on the floor trying to escape their mundane day-job realities.
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Building on that momentum, Rooty doesn't alter the group's thematic or musical touchstones as much as it explores them more deeply. At first, the new CD doesn't seem as captivating, or as blazingly original, as the previous effort. But it grows on you -- the disembodied, longing vocals; the layers of hooks and feeling; the continuity and consistency of the album. Basement Jaxx may not throw a lot of stylistic curveballs on Rooty, but the group's unique personality -- sort of a warm, groovy insistence -- enlivens almost everything here.
There exists an urge among some to shrug off Basement Jaxx's agreeably accessible songs as well-concocted piffles. (And having a goofy white gorilla on the album jacket isn't going to help matters, either.) Mostly, this criticism stems from the group's reliance on the tried-and-true subject matter of love-at-first-sight romance and the difficulty in maintaining it. Needless to say, these complainers are the kind of folks who bemoaned synthesizers and turntables 20 years ago as illegitimate instruments of meaningful musical expression. One listen to "Romeo," Rooty's first track and lead single, convinces that a clever lyric and a whip-smart melody can turn a common lament into an ebullient tune.
While the Chemical Brothers conceive their songs as rock-oriented epics of towering mood -- those guys see the dance hall as a huge science lab -- Basement Jaxx favors a pop-inflected, human-scaled tone. And because of this, you never lose sight of Rooty's dramatic heft. The disillusioned ingenue of "Broken Dreams" and the resilient romantic in "All I Know" move us as much as the rhythm tracks. And even when the Jaxx are indulging in the bubblegum love of "Jus 1 Kiss" or the house-heavy thump of "Where's Your Head At," they don't play it for cheap effect. Like any good DJ, Buxton and Ratcliffe recognize that most people gravitate to dance music for its ability to create tangible catharsis. Without insulting your intelligence, Basement Jaxx perfectly captures that fleeting, otherworldly moment of release.
Dance music is always gonna get knocked for being empty-headed fun -- too often it lacks a flesh-and-blood heart to satisfy the nonbelievers -- but the Jaxx demonstrate it doesn't have to be that way. And even more amazingly, they've managed to do it twice now.