Here are some things Basement Jaxx’s new album, Rooty, makes me think of: the long-range viability of classic song form; hip-hop’s aesthetic hegemony and how it contributed to the divorce of beat from song and the idea that dancing is for girls; local culture; global capital; Daft Punk’s new album; the tapes I made in 1984 for my high school senior dance; and the Euro (the currency, not the guy who wears sandals and sunglasses to the cafeteria).
Here are the things you want to know about Basement Jaxx’s new album, Rooty: Yes, it’s as good as the last one, maybe better. Yes, there’s a single to accompany your behind, “Romeo,” their deepest epiphany yet. No, it’s not the 2step album people said it would be, not if I hear 2step correctly, though it’s certainly high-spirited and of the moment. Let’s do one of those Euro (yes to the sandals guy this time) magazine micro-blurbs that summarize mini-reviews: “Underground house kings revive Prince for the disco-tech queens!” Young guns of Brixton Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe stake their claim to newness by curating a slide show of the past they think is missing from the now—Earth, Wind and Fire; Chic; the Selecter; castanets; Gary Numan; Dominatrix; Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson—all without violating Talmudic BPM rules.
Begin as they begin, with “Romeo,” one of those songs that you hear once and like, and then you fall over flat (in a good way) the second time. “Romeo” is to dance music what “Teen Spirit” was to a certain rock formalism—all the good bits strung together and exaggerated by the knowledge that they are actually the good bits and hey, why didn’t we do this before? You will be a house apostate if you actually enjoy “Sexy Feline Machine,” not because of the conceptual Prince nod and the P-Funk ya-ya-ya background vocals, but because it’s not strictly in 4/4 time. Big whoop, but that’s the kind of thing that earned Basement Jaxx (and Daft Punk, woo ha) an early “punk disco” tag. Disco being the big fat yes of pleasure, and punk being the multi-colored no of bloody-mindedness, it never made much sense to me, so I reckon it’s just some schoolyard shit: B-Jaxx are punks because they’re different. It indicates how uptight house is that Jaxx got called (or called themselves) punks simply for using what their neighbors wouldn’t: sounds borrowed from U.S. pop and rock, juicier chord changes than the economy demands, lyrics that go beyond football chants, and anonymous singers who sound like they might not stay that way forever. Which list makes the Basement Jaxx sound like pop, but their promo sticker is running out of room. (Tiny CD real estate, damn you!)
But in “Freakalude,” they advertise themselves like this: “What is freaky? Freaky is a whole lot of magic holed up into one little space that just needs to escape. But u know what? I don’t call it freaky. I call it funky.” U know what? That’s the moment when I started thinking of my high school dance tapes. Tape Two, side B goes, partially, like this: the Jam, Disco 3, the Fresh 3, Malcolm McLaren, Siouxsie’s version of “Supernatural Thing,” then Killing Joke, then Grace Jones. You get the idea. It’s variety, or the collision of not obviously compatible magic, that links Rooty and these tapes. But after 90 minutes, the difference is obvious. Back in 1984, the Fun Boy Three didn’t know from Masterdon Committee nor did they know about Killing Joke. There is pleasure in the friction of the old, local ways poking though the new world playlist, and vulnerability in the baby steps of an all-for-one culture. As with Remain in Light and Sign ‘o’ the Times (nostalgia overload!), the old is visible right next to a new that never came. Or forget culture and go formal; it’s the difference between a mix and a melt, a group of distinct ingredients or a new mash.
There’s very little pop now that hasn’t been melted under the heat lamps of either disco/house or hip-hop, the two beat structures that took over the world. In the U.S., hip-hop turned on the lamps, and in Europe it was disco. If you had told me 17 years ago I’d be envious of a Eurodisco state of mind, I would have asked you to get off my premises. But things turned out a bit different than when I was imagining the Treacherous Three taking over the world. Though I’d be thrilled to reach the Emerald City with OutKast, or stay here and bitch in dystopia with Cannibal Ox, hip-hop’s takeover has displaced many of the things that made the New York state of mind so sweet: dancing to songs, verse-to-chorus bridges, clave rhythms, straight guys who dance well, gay record store clerks, chord changes, string sections, harmony, assertive female pleasure, dancing dogs, harmonic dogs, dogs of the world unite.
Ah, but disco had room at the inn, and this is where Basement Jaxx (and Daft Punk, holler on me!) laid their robot heads as children. And when they awoke with visions of Cerrone dancing in their heads, they were smart enough to know hip-hop and Timbaland had raised the bar on sonics but sensitive enough to notice global hop had left a lot of other things behind. So they both jacked up the pleasure (see the disco yes) and, within bounds, brought in some feel-good exiles. (Most Americans will be more comfortable with B-Jaxx’s canon of missing heroes than Daft Punk’s, as the former does not include either metal solos from country songs or Michael McDonald.)
But no, I’m not saying Rooty will be Sign ‘o’ the Times for anybody but the wishful or kids who’ve grown up listening to Autechre. Disco is a heat lamp, inclusive or no, and there’s no pop album right now with the internal edges of a great mix tape. Rooty‘s BPMs stay within a DJ’s idea of reason and there’s not, like, a live band breakdown or an ode to Dorothy Parker here. Nor is there always an individual personality driving or deforming the music, but the Jaxx can find one when they need to. “Romeo” singer Kele le Roc’s needs sound a lot more immediate than J.Lo’s, and the female chorus on “Get Me Off” demands “fuck me, trust me, get me off,” without sounding too much like some guy asked them to do it. Some guys did, though, and I’ve got no proof they were more interested in the lyrics than in the nasty square wave synth bassline. I still get a feeling the Jaxx aren’t puppeteers. At least the “trust me” bit acknowledges the fact that folks have lives after the dance ends.
Though I accept Basement Jaxx as a viable Now Version of culture mash, I still miss the edges, vive la différence and all that. That makes me sound like one of those Brits who don’t like the Euro because it’s, well, different and not British, and that’s not a good enough reason to resist the future. Forget what it isn’t—Rooty‘s bring-it-on disco attitude feels pretty rock and roll next to the woe-is-me slow dance that rock has become, whether you’re rocking Sigur Rós or Creed. Put “Romeo” in between the Creation’s “Making Time” and “Crosseyed and Painless” and you’ve got a vigorous hat trick. That’s exactly where it is on our current family mix tape. And though my wife thinks the Beatles need to go because they’re too well known and my eldest son doesn’t like the Gal Costa tune, everything’s gonna be all right. Yesterday’s gone. Let it all go.