Luke Jenner of Brooklynites the Rapture may sing a lot about love over loud disco beats, but something tells me that if he got stuck in a Basement Jaxx song he’d have a panic attack. Jenner’s vocal style suggests he’s having one already, so I’m not saying that to be mean. And since, when you first hear them, most Basement Jaxx songs sound like they’re coming at you from 10 directions at once anyway, it’s not as if Jenner would be alone—most likely you’d panic, too. So would I.
In Jaxxworld, everything jumps, everything squiggles, everything’s up for grabs. There are exceptions—”If I Ever Recover” on Kish Kash tips its hat to Chicago house smoothie Fingers Inc.—but those are there to restore us to reality before the next plunge, or to take us out and/or down. “Recover” cushions the album’s headiest moment, “Plug It In,” in which the Prince of “U Got the Look” up and devours the Prince of “Erotic City,” just before “Cish Cash” rolls over the Luxx playlist like an 18-wheeler with a sense of entitlement.
Maybe “Plug It In” vocalist J.C. Chasez (*NSync) and Siouxsie Sioux (Banshees), who sings “Cish Cash,” are more used to the spotlight than Jenner was when the Rapture made Echoes a year ago, and therefore sound more at ease on their respective single-of-the-year candidates than he would. And maybe the unknowns who take center stage when a Big Name Guest Star doesn’t are too unselfconscious to know any better. When Jaxx-men Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe invite a Brixton homegirl called Emily to pipe “It makes no sense at all to me!” atop static-horn-synth twee-rave riffs and skippy 2step beats, she sounds giddy, unable to contain herself, like making no sense at all is the secret of life. Jenner wouldn’t; he’d sing it the way he sings everything on Echoes, as if he’s lost in a maze of possibilities and is wary of most of them.
Echoes is as self-conscious as Elephant or Kid A or God Loves Ugly, except it follows a subculture-landmark single, not album. “House of Jealous Lovers” may have finished ninth in last year’s Pazz & Jop on the strength of its New York vote, but reliable sources note that its disco pulse and postpunk guitar are currently being ripped off by lessers from Olympia to Chapel Hill. Good—anything but another fucking Modest Mouse clone. What makes Echoes more than the sum of its inspirations (the title cut directly rips PiL’s “Careering,” “Olio” sounds exactly like the Cure, with Jenner a shameless Robert Smith doppelgänger wherever) is that the band audibly, valiantly struggle to create something bigger than they are. That’s one reason the album has been engendering backlash for the near year it’s been floating around on promos and P2Ps.
But Echoes‘ attempt to morph disco feels less like postpunk than like the reverse negative of an album from a different dance-rock era: Primal Scream’s 1991 Screamadelica. Both are as much producers’ albums as band ones (take a bow, DFA). The difference is context: Screamadelica blisses out, goes too far, comes up shorter than you want. Echoes is constrained; it shudders, not slinks, out of its shell, struggling hard against the current. So the grooves are life preservers rather than immersion tanks, as hyper-aware as the rock songs (a major difference between Primal Scream and the Rapture: The latter are American, meaning when they pick up guitars they actually rock) and, shockingly, the ballads. “Open Up Your Heart” is a crack in the album’s surface that threatens to swallow everything in its path (on the third song!) but instead illuminates it, while “Love Is All” is straight-up classic rock. In both, you can hear Jenner not entirely convincing himself that he can will himself to swoon. One eye open as his head tilts back, he makes sure he doesn’t fall down, and you want to catch him if he does.
Ratcliffe and Buxton, in contrast, have their belief down cold, which is easier when you’re baptized in rave than after-the-fact postpunk. They don’t have to struggle; in dance music, release is a given. But at this point it’s probably misleading to refer to Basement Jaxx as “dance”: They’ve now spent three albums (four, counting the 1998 12-inch compendium Atlantic Jaxx Recordings) upending house music. Still, they came up in rave, and are still going to be filed in the “dance” section of your local mom-and-pop. But it’s not stretching to suggest that they’ve complicated house music’s ease so effectively that Kish Kash often resembles, well, postpunk. Partly this is cosmetic: Why imitate Lydon-Levene-Wobble when you can hire Siouxsie Sioux? But Kish Kash‘s idea surfeit, its loosey-goosey denseness, its bric-a-brac wooziness, its squelches and squeals and microriffs and background vocals contorting themselves and then snapping back into place, is as spiritually generous as the Rapture’s formal breakouts. Buxton and Ratcliffe’s pleasure-first principles (engage, engage, engage, ruthlessly and at all costs) make them the thing rather than simply the idea. Let’s hope the Rapture get there, too.
The Rapture play Roseland October 24.