Album Review: Basement Jaxx – Scars

It’s been a long time since 2003’s Kish Kash. That is to say, if you were one of those who considered 2006’s Crazy Itch Radio to be a mere transport point in the band’s discography that didn’t necessarily lead Basement Jaxx forward (this writer not included). I could go so far as to agree that the conceptual fourth album is their weakest full-length to date. Even though I do believe that the album did have its quirky points and distinctive charm, the lasting impact and “run over” feeling that their previous albums left the listener with is absent. With that in mind, three years has been quite a long wait for the UK duo’s fifth album, Scars.

There are several reasons to consider this album something of a small turning point in Jaxx’s career. First of all, there’s the title and style of the album. Scars hints towards someone that has traveled far on adventurous roads (reflected in the cover art for the album and the singles accompanying it), and it channels many of the traits, tricks, and tweaky twists from the band’s past. Still, though, the feeling of the album is very “here and now!”, and this obviously also meant that it was necessary to get rid of all fillers: the trademark “-ludes” that any fan has grown custom to by this point. No matter how sad some may feel over this broken tradition, this means that there’s more room than ever to fill with fun guests.

Perhaps it’s not a matter of filling up vocal space as much as it’s a matter of the duo’s eager joy of picking and choosing among a wide range of possible collaborators. This nearly obsessive guest vox extravaganza is an element that has exponentially grown throughout the band’s discography and been an important factor in the creating of the unique sound that has made them top of the dance crop internationally. Each new track on Scars seems to be looked upon as another place to squeeze in a new guest in their zany, crowded soundscape. The only track without contribution from outside is the lead single “Raindrops”, a happy, triumphant psychedelica dancepop anthem with Buxton himself on vocoder-assisted vocals, that poured over the late summer parties like a can of rainbow-coloured paint.

The second single, “Feelings Gone”, was released September 8th and kicked off the autumn with Sam Sparro’s soulful vocals and a typically spotless but incredibly lush production featuring equally vivid dancepop sensibilities. The third track, that has been available prior to release, is the 2008 track “Twerk”, (from the Planet 1 EP), a Yo! Majesty collaboration that picks the bass-heavy club sound up from where the non-album 2007 Roxanne Shanté-led track “Make Me Sweat” left it. The duo proves that at their most club-oriented, they’re pretty much incomparable.

The rest of the Scars vocal posse is a mix of up-and-coming talent, underground gems, and semi-hot big names. Soon-to-debut 18 year old UK rapper Chipmunk is put against no one else but the Kelis and the latest British soul-pop candidate Meleka in the entertainingly dramatic opening electro’n’b title track. Paloma Faith is another little star rising and perhaps with help from the insanely infectious “What’s A Girl Gotta Do?”, with its bumpy groove and flirtacious chorus, her upcoming debut album will be a success, too.

A Grace Jones input was put on ice, but instead they thawed experimental music’s own cavewoman queen Yoko Ono to make the dodgy danceable march “Day Of The Sunflower (We March On)”. It’s a notable and interesting track, because Basement Jaxx is the only electronic dance act today that could possibly land a collaboration track where Yoko Ono recites new age mantras and emulates sexual thrill. By this point, I think any comments on Basement Jaxx’s wildly varying and recklessly progressing style and how it has remained intact for over a decade are unnecessary.

Scars throws the listener around like a ragdoll in their frenetic party universe. At one point you’re getting jiggy with Santigold, who after her debut album scores another opportunity to coin that new “i” in her artist name, in the trippy “Saga”; at another you’re hearing Amp Fiddler croon over a reworked version of Santo & Johnny’s famous ’59 instrumental “Sleepwalk”. You somehow find yourself sitting beside a moody Lightspeed Champion contemplating over a bass-lead dance beat accompanied by his acoustic guitar, ambient background harmonies and heartbroken, squeaking string arrangements. You suddenly realize you’re in the middle of a bustling, electronically revamped 60’s rock ‘n’ roll floor-filler with Eli “Paperboy” Reed. It’s a ride. One hell of a ride.

Not being quite as consistently danceable and therefore physically tiring as its predecessors, Scars still blows its fair share of minds by compensating a smaller concentration of straightforward dance-floor grooves with emotional variation and hence also an ever-twisting and turning style figure. Basement Jaxx, like many of their long-time competitors and contemporaries in dance-oriented electronic music (most notably their compatriots The Chemical Brothers), have always had a knack for mixing more somber, down-tempo efforts into their studio albums to justify being a dance act in full-length album form. As if there was a need to prove that there’s more to the DJ/producer life than filling releases with club hits and DJ favourites. Most of the time, however, this has been for the better for both listeners’ enjoyment and the artists’ credibility.

Scars is ended with a trio of the sort that usually is specked across the latter half of dance albums. Call them progtronica if you like. Progressive electronica seems like a fair description to the nightcap that is “Stay Close”, sung by long-time collaborating vocalist Lisa Kekaula of “Good Luck” fame. The curiously titled “D.I.S.tractionz” takes help from Jose Hendrix to further accentuate Scars as one of the Jaxx’s most exotically intriguing albums. Another José has been called in to create something that most closely resembles deep jazz house with hip hop influences. José James doesn’t have the most danceable track on the record, but instead closes it with vocals that wander the night streets in search for company and a good time.

Scars could easily have been the triumphant comeback of a duo proving to still be number one in their field. Unfortunately, it seems that the duo’s ability to produce pure hit material, or even a decent amount of memorable singles, has slowly faded away. Remedy, Rooty, and Kish Kash all come across as hit cavalcades compared to Scars. However, it’s important to remember that the world hasn’t been able to pick up with the duo’s genius forward-thinking until now. Their sound is not nearly as comic book-futuristic or mind-tingling as it was ten years ago. Nonetheless there’s nothing that has held back their wicked sense for producing super-fun dance tracks and that exuberant atmosphere is still vivid. As long as Basement Jaxx keep that alive, there’s no stopping them from doing what they do best for another ten years. In that light, Scars appears as worthy as any noteworthy dance album of 2009.

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