Review Summary: If you've been dying to hear what an orgasming Yoko Ono might sound like, your chance has finally arrived!
Their scene might be dead, but U.K. progressive house duo Basement Jaxx (Felix Burton and Simon Ratcliffe) show they can hang with the new kids on their fifth album, the party-all-the-time Scars. While Ratcliffe and Burton were going all conceptual on their last effort, 2006’s Crazy Itch Radio, up-and-coming dance groups like Justice, Simian Mobile Disco, and even a rejuvenated Daft Punk were bringing dance/electronica to a whole new indie audience. In the process, Jaxx’s influence on the current scene was a bit forgotten, the brilliance of their masterpiece Kish Kash overshadowed by a wave of hip DJ troupes and a perception of the duo as, well, a bit old. By the time the title track kicks things off with Kelis, Meleka, and Chipmunk, however, it’s clear that, no matter how long the Jaxx have been around, they still know how to throw down a freaky groove.
From the former Mrs. Nas to the former Mrs. Lennon, Basement Jaxx call in a number of favors and produce what could easily be termed their comeback album, a record that kick starts the party to 11 and never dials it back. The beats here are some of the sharpest and dirtiest of their career; from when the bass drops out and then slams back in as Burton croons along on “Raindrops” to when what sounds like a hyperactive New Orleans brass section sends the sassy, jazzy “She’s No Good” into the club stratosphere, Burton and Ratcliffe continually prove again and again why they remain two of the top DJs in the business. Their version of dance never tries to exclude, relying on the intelligent pop foundation that the two base every song on and drawing from a palette of vibrant, colorful styles and genres. With the Jaxx you will never hear the same repetitive drum ‘n bass or surging, back-and-forth synth roar, but don’t discount the random samba beat or occasional shoegaze guitar riff.
The funky hip-hop pastiche “Twerk,” which features a tasty sample of ‘80s classic “Maniac,” would appeal to any casual Top 40 fan, while songs like the bouncy, Mark Ronson-esque “What’s A Girl Gotta Do” and the blue-eyed techno-soul that Sam Sparro brings to “Feelings Gone” are sure to please everyone from club goers to tight-jeaned indie kids, respectively. The production remains uniformly top-notch, allowing even fairly lackluster guest spots, like Santigold’s on “Saga” or Amp Fiddler on the dreamy, guitar-driven slow jam “A Possibility,” to shine regardless. Indeed, the pace is so breakneck and the beats so relentlessly tasty that it sometimes becomes almost too much. Whereas Kish Kash had a series of perfectly-placed interludes to allow for some necessary breathing room, this nonstop romp sometimes causes songs to bleed together, leading tunes like “My Turn” to be overshadowed by their predecessor or one to lose track of exactly which song one is listening to.
And then there’s the incredibly frustrating centerpiece of the album sung by the infamous Yoko Ono. “Day of the Sunflowers – We March On” features easily one of the sexiest beats on the record, an everywhere-at-once stew of trip-hop and elastic dance held together by a fantastic drum part. But then Ono’s vocals, which are certainly odd but not unpleasant, turn a screeching 180-degrees about midway through. Suddenly she’s mumbling something about fish tickling her skin and cows that look like ducks as she ululates randomly before making what sounds like an uncomfortably realistic fake orgasm. Clearly she hasn’t lost it (whatever it is, of course; I’m sure John could’ve told us), even at age 76.
Besides making the odd choice to close with “Gimme Somethin’ True,” which makes a lot more sense in the middle of the record than as a rather abrupt conclusion, Scars finishes up as a great success. Burton and Ratcliffe have again created a dance record that is innovative and obscenely catchy in an era when much of the genre is content to practice a mere retreading of what others are doing better. Now if they could only bring back some of the moderation and sequencing they mastered on Kish Kash, they’d likely have yet another classic record on their hands.