Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 72)
Can’t blame them for lack of trying but by 2003 Basement Jaxx’s mainstream audience was deserting them. Blame it upon the firestorm of hype that greeted their 1999 debut Remedy
. The attention heaped upon them on impact bred the expectation that the Basement Jaxx were going to burn out fast, not become career artists. But when 2001’s Rooty
bettered their debut in every way it felt like the Jaxx were defying both the electronica movement and the 15 minutes of fame prescribed to them. The Jaxx didn’t give us two great albums though, they gave us three. The third, 2003’s Kish Kash
, should have been bigger than their first two albums. So why wasn’t it? As Thom Yorke stated in the Radiohead mini-documentary/bummer-odyssey Meeting People is Easy
, “English people aren’t impressed. There’s this automatic assumption that any degree of success means that you’ve cheated.” This goes a long way in explaining the brutal politics of the UK pop charts, where artists can go from massive stars to total obscurity in a handful of years.
Sensing this, Felix Ratcliffe and Simon Buxton wholly throw themselves into making Kish Kash
their biggest record ever. It’s an all-in affair; more guests, bigger singles, and an increased focus on pop over dance. Commercially, while not a total failure it was the first strong bit of evidence that the Jaxx’s popularity was on the slip. It was their first album that failed to plant a single in the top 10 and their last album to plant a single in the top 20. Artistically though, Kish Kash
is a massive success, taking the sound established by their previous two records to its logical conclusion. It’s hard to imagine them making a bigger, fuller noise than this without the whole contraption collapsing in on itself.
Never one for a modest opening, the Jaxx rip out the kitchen sink, a couple cabinets, and toss the whole mess out the window on “Good Luck”, a staggering opener that may not surpass the almighty “Romeo” but comes close. Because atomsphere in music is most often associated with quiet, Basement Jaxx have never been lauded for their own expert craftsmanship with atmosphere but the reason their album’s are so compelling is how they layer a very urban atmosphere over everything. The opening seconds of “Good Luck” evoke nothing less than a spaceship breaking through a thick coverage of clouds, revealing a vividly over saturated future metropolis lorded over by Ratcliffe and Buxton. From there, the Jaxx recognize what an enormous talent they’re dealing with in California singer Lisa Kekaula and clear the arena for her star turn. This is wise as from the first moment Kekaula bellows “TELL ME, TELL ME”, “Good Luck” belongs to her. So instead, Ratcliffe and Buxton see how much they can build around around her without distracting from her and boy do they fit a lot of stuff in there. Surf guitar, crunching bass, beatboxing, zooming bongos and a huge string section comprise just the most notable aspects of “Good Luck”, elements arranged and layered perfectly to feel overstuffed and totally necessary at the same time. The song’s escalating momentum is controlled tightly and funneled directly into a cathartic bridge that boils over, creating an avalanche of energy that travels through the final chorus, coda, and into the pulsing rave-up of second track “Right Here’s the Spot”.
Unlike The Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx never got that superstar collabo to put them through the roof and while Kish Kash
was their most guest heavy record at that point it doesn’t suffer from the company. The Jaxx excel at utilizing their guest’s strengths and letting their songs be a showcase for them first. Best example on Kish Kash
and the closest they got to a superstar collaboration is their recognition of Dizzee Rascal as bona-fide party starter six years before he did. His turn on “Lucky Star” allows him, post Boy in da Corner
success, to survey his good fortune and he seizes the opportunity with gusto, both expressing his surprise at his rise (“I've come a little way in a little long time/From doing street robberies and petty crime/I've come far in a little long way/I would just like to say I feel fine”) and spinning clever bits of social commentary (“Guilty, betrayed, so innocently/Earth natives act immigrants”) over a lurching blur of racing Indian strings and whacked out drums. JC Chasez gets his one and only bit of post-N*SYNC relevance on the bashing pop of “Plug it In” while Siouxsie Sioux spits hot judgement on the 200 km/hr Autobahn rush of “Cish Cash”.
But Basement Jaxx’s opening trio of records aren't just notable for their big tunes but their abundance of stellar deep cuts and Kish Kash
is entirely bereft of filler. You get the stylish heartbreak of “If I Ever Recover”, the gaping musical black hole opening up in the center of “Tonight”’s samba-lounge, and the pure pop pleasure of late album highlight “Hot N Cold”. “Living Room” is a different beast entirely, a psycho Pepe Le Pew pursuit that sports an excellent vocal from Jaxx member Felix Buxton that makes you wonder why he didn’t sing more.
7-minute quiet storm closer “Feels Like Home” is Kish Kash
’s biggest risk. It contains no steady beat, no build, and no climax. This was uncharted territory for Basement Jaxx but they pull it off flawlessly. By utilizing constantly shifting textures the song captivates for its entire runtime without ever feeling like it’s building to anything epic, instead it drifts along serenely on a beguiling toybox of musical instruments and Meshell Ndegeocello’s whisper quiet vocal. A beautiful and touching track, it sends Kish Kash
out on a poignant note that wraps the album up perfectly.
concludes Basement Jaxx’s untouchable period. A magical 4 year stretch where Basement Jaxx could be well relied upon to put out club demolishers, chart toppers, pop hits, and the excellent albums that contained them. The flaws that normally go along with being star dance producers - gimmicky collaborations, albums that were crammed with fillers, lazy mixes - were all avoided by the Jaxx during this time, who were always master sequencers and maintained a tight level of quality control throughout. While Basement Jaxx would go on to make more excellent music, they would never sound quite this energized again. So while it’s sad it had to end, it’s impossible to imagine a better sendoff for this period than the amazing Kish Kash
. Basement Jaxx came, they saw, and, as Armin Van Helden so eloquently put it, they “f*cked house up the ass” and we should all be grateful for that.