October 11, 2006
I’ve always had a tough time listening to more than two or three Basement Jaxx tracks in a row. The British duo’s take on dance music is just too messy and ADD; they’re not content to ride one beat or one idea for even a couple of minutes, so they cram in all sorts of bloops and flourishes and superfluous vocals and whooshes and clangs until it turns into this precariously dizzy whirlwind of sound. They’re almost cartoonishly omnivorous, and they pile all the Spanish guitars and horn stabs and diva screeches and dancehall-MC blurts and drum-ripples on top of each other with no concern for tension-and-release dynamics or rhythmic pulse. Their tracks don’t build to big moments; they’re just all one big moment, and it all feels like too much. Most of my favorite dance songs (Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” KW-Griff’s “You Big Dummy,” Pitbull’s “Bojangles”) start with the beat and then build around it. They might squeeze all sorts of disparate elements into the tracks, but everything’s there to build on the beat, to push it forward or to create little counterpoints to it. In most Basement Jaxx songs, the beat is almost an afterthought, just another element in a claustrophobic storm of them. About the first half of the group’s 1999 debut album Remedy maintains a basic house-music thump, and then they start blindly grabbing at everything around them, and they haven’t really stopped doing it since. A lot of smart people who know a whole lot more about dance music than I do seem to unconditionally love everything they do, but to my ears, the music seems almost oblivious to its own danceability. They certainly have a gang of catchy songs (“Rendez-Vu,” “Do Your Thing,” “Lucky Star”), but their overall aesthetic is jittery enough to shut my brain down, and not in the good way.
I’d heard a lot about Basement Jaxx shows and their use of sheer dizzy spectacle, and so I went to last night’s Webster Hall show, one of only two US shows this year, wondering if their whole mess would make more sense in a collective context. In its own way, though, the group’s stage show is as messy and free of rigor as its records. They must’ve spent a small fortune on plane tickets. The band itself was big (electronics, drums, percussion, guitar, three-piece horn section), but I lost count of all the singers and toasters and dancers they brought out over the course of the show; some of them only came out to deliver a couple of lines and then disappeared backstage. And so the show felt something like a Broadway revue, with people flying out of nowhere wrapped in British and Jamaican flags or weird cheerleader costumes or barely-there miniskirts, wilding out for a minute or two, and never returning again. There was a weird racial element to the whole spectacle: mostly black singers getting freaky at the front of the stage while a white band studiously pounded out the music behind them. When one of the Jaxx dudes emerged from behind his huge bank of electronics, he looked like a little kid lost in the playground he’d built for himself. And musically, the show was even more of a mess than the records, but I guess that’s what happens when you hire a live band to play frantic house music and then channel it through a sound system built to handle indie-rock. The song arrangements were somehow looser than on record; the band even shoehorned the almighty “Apache” break into “Jump N’ Shout.” Things only slowed down once, with a startlingly subdued and pretty rendition of “Lights Go Down.”
But the whole thing still ended up being a blast, and that was mostly because of the audience, one of the most amped and energetic New York crowds I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t even see the stage at times because of all the hands in the air, and the floor actually shook from all the people pogoing. It was like the crowd managed to push the whole show toward a sort of disco transcendence just by force of will. Looking around, there certainly seemed to be a lot of rave veterans in attendance (there were glowsticks), and I don’t know if that level of enthusiasm was just some old-school New York club shit, but I’d like to think it was. The big story behind the Jaxx’s biggest song, “Where’s Your Head At,” was the way they incorporated a rowdy, charged-up knuckleheaded oi singalong, but I’ve always hated that song; for me, it didn’t do anything that the Dropkick Murphys don’t do a bajillion times better. The dancers in gorilla costumes that came out onstage last night weren’t about to convince me that I was wrong. But the crowd treated the song like an anthem, and all of a sudden it became one. The people yelling the chorus outside in the street afterwards didn’t hurt, either.