Basement Jaxx Rock The Whole House
CRIMSON STAFF WRITER
One hour before Basement Jaxx were scheduled to drop a sonic bomb of seismic proportions on the Boston massive, I was finding such a thing increasingly unlikely. The atmosphere was a let-down—instead of a noisy club filling to capacity, I found several handfuls of bored people idly listening to the horrid strain of Latin-lite fusion muzak filtering through the sound system. It was another half hour before the lights finally dimmed.
Long Beach’s Ugly Duckling, who opened the show, only managed to worsen my expectations. These guys exemplified purist hip-hop’s worst qualities—a formulaic, unexciting musical aesthetic of mediocre loops and scratches, paired with uncharismatic M.C.s who, with their “clever” yet predictable punchline lyrics, ended up saying as little as any “thug kna’a mean?” gangsta rapper. Occasionally taking breaks from their set for some rather awkward sketches, lame jokes and clichéd sermons on the real meaning of hip-hop, the trio demonstrated that hip-hop isn’t about “looking tough,” having “multicolored teeth,” or “Jay-Z.” It is, apparently, about embarrassing attempts at reviving what was good 10 years ago, and not doing a very good job at that. The decidedly indifferent audience, which by the end of Ugly Duckling’s set had probably tripled in size, indicated that it was about time for some interesting musicians to take the stage.
“Interesting” was Basement Jaxx at their worst, during the momentum-breaking ballad “Broken Dreams.” At their repeated best, they tore up the place song after song and had the delirious crowd cheering for more bass pressure. Needless to say, the enthusiasm-draining late start and opening act were all but forgotten.
With the release of Rooty, their long-awaited follow-up to 1999’s instant-classic debut Remedy, Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton have firmly planted themselves in the realm of contemporary pop music. And with good reason—within the context of house music’s stomping four-on-the-floor beat, the Jaxx add an array of unexpected elements. Contributing to the mix are destabilizing rhythms gleaned from the likes of Timbaland, catchy melodic hooks and actual song structures, as well as a punk-like immediacy achieved with their startlingly original usage of noisy, densely woven samples. Unlike so many musical failures, Basement Jaxx are neither dogmatic purists nor contrived, self-conscious genre blenders; they have simply thrown out all rules but one—that music was meant to be fun. With their gleefully irreverent, high-energy approach—like-minded house producer Armand van Helden said that Jaxx have “fucked house music up the ass”—the duo straddle the line between mainstream and underground, alluring fans from both scenes.
Nowhere was their universal appeal more apparent than under the roof of Avalon last week. After a ridiculously pompous opening fanfare, the duo got straight to business with a spine-tingling mix of their wildest, most floor-shaking anthems. The songs were intercut by intense live jams that consisted almost entirely of tweaked sirens and ultra-distorted basslines, the occasional cheeky sample (Eminem elicited a small cheer), and divine, slamming beats. Not stopping at mere sound, however, the show boasted a rotating cast of exotically clad vocalists and dancers whose exhortations to the crowd were at once embracing and confrontational, as well as a live drummer who had little discernable purpose other than to add to the tribal vibes. The entire spectacle effectively transformed the upscale, preppy club into a carnival of lights, flesh and crowd-unifying drums.
More than a simple promotional outlet, the Jaxx show was a very conscious attempt at uniting house and pop music, which seem worlds apart but are quite similar in spirit. Something clicked when the booming but unremarkable intro beats segued perfectly into the reassuringly familiar single “Romeo,” whose singalong chorus had nothing to do with the vocalist or band, but instead implored the crowd to “let it all go” into the carefully sculpted track. It was a deceptive ploy that soon had bona fide dancers singing along with the raunchy divas, and dance neophytes feeling the immortal pulse of the 909 kick drum. The surprises continued when Simon picked up an acoustic guitar for “Rendez-vu,” and Felix (progenitor of incredibly cool music but ostensibly a geek behind a mixing board) rushed to the front of the stage with a microphone and, in true rock-star fashion, sang-screamed the lyrics to the spastic, Gary Numan-sampling “Where’s Your Head At.” The clear high of the night came with a surprise performance of “Bongoloids,” a dancehall-tinged adrenaline-rush during which the entire cast stirred the audience into a frenzy.
Closing off the show on a Latin note with “Samba Magic” next to “Bingo Bango,” the Jaxx left little to be desired—more improvisation, perhaps, or a performance of “Jump n’ Shout.” But their sonic mutant—a playful, sexy, tribal and altogether euphoric affair—proved that music transcends all barriers when brilliant artistry and sublime grooves are rightfully united.