I'll be honest. I wasn't expecting to like Scars, the fifth album by the Basement Jaxx. Although 2001's Rooty remains one of my favorite albums, I was disappointed by the disjointed feel of 2003's Kish Kash, so much so that I didn't bother buying their last album, 2006's Crazy Itch Radio.
I figured Mssrs. Felix Bunton and Simon Ratcliffe were past their prime, and any additional effort would just offer diminishing returns. Besides, they sort of jumped the shark by having JC Chasez on "Plug it In."
I'm happy to say that I was dead wrong. Basement Jaxx are not past their sell-by date, and Scars is a remarkable album. It still offers the ADD-addled dance music that they are famous for, but also sees them exploring more mature and introspective territory. They've always been much more song-oriented than your average electronic music act, focusing on songwriting rather than just riding a groove. On much of this album they find the perfect mix of pop sensibilities and dancefloor thump.
The album opens with "Scars," a typically glitchy, jam-packed Jaxx tune featuring Kelis, Meleka, and rapper Chipmunk. The track combines snippets from a choir with skittering beat and Kelis' soulful vocals.The Jaxx have always been good at finding up-and-coming rappers (see Dizzee Rascal's turn on "Lucky Star" from Kish Kash), and Chipmunk holds up his end of the bargain. It's the type of kinetic, quirky music that has made them so successful.
"Raindrops" sees the group going in a different direction. It has the signature Basement Jaxx hyperactivity, but it is muted. "Just like raindrops, you taste so good on my lips" sings an Auto-Tuned Simon, and as tired as Auto-Tune is, it works in the song. The keyboard solo is similar to Daft Punk's "Aerodynamic," and the album as a whole is reminiscent of Daft Punk's Discovery; both albums combine house and pop with enough sophistication to appeal to music snobs and the masses alike.
As with all recent Basement Jaxx albums, this one is loaded with guest appearances. Twelve of the thirteen tracks feature guest vocalists. Those range from relative unknowns like Jose James to icons like Yoko Ono (her "Day of the Sunflowers (We March On)" is about as irritating as a Yoko Ono song is supposed to be). Since Ratcliffe and Bunton are always on the boards, the album sounds cohesive, more so than a typical hip hop album that might have one rapper but twelve producers. While Kish Kash felt to me like a mixtape, Scars is less scattered.
The highlight of the album are the back-to-back tracks "Feelings Gone" and "My Turn." "Feelings Gone" is an uplifting house tune with the soulful vocals of Sam Sparro. "Feelings Gone" sounds like vintage dance music, and you could almost imagine it booming out of a Chicago club in the 90s.
It's contrasted by the more downbeat "My Turn," featuring Lightspeed Champion's sad-sack vocals. What could be another depressive indie song is transformed by the Jaxx, who add a bubbling beat over the acoustic guitar. Instead of being a downer, "My Turn" becomes a song about a man who has hit rock bottom but is looking at the sky. Those two tracks highlight the way the Basement Jaxx continue to develop and adapt the classic house sound.
They also explore electro-ska on Santigold's "Saga," and Paloma Faith's "What's A Girl Gotta Do?" is an electronic take on jitterbug jazz similar to "Do Your Thing" from Rooty. "A Possibility," reworks Santo and Johnny's 50s instrumental "Sleep Walk," and the spazzy, glitchy "Twerk," has lesbian rappers Yo Majesty shouting commands over interpolations of "Maniac." If the dance music thing doesn't work out, the boys could have successful careers as hip hop producers. The album ends on a mellow note, with the downtempo "Stay Close," "Distractionz," and slightly more energized "Gimme Somethin' True." These quieter moments allow the Jaxx to explore different sounds and emotions, straying from their usual technicolor soundscapes.
Scars, like all of the Basement Jaxx work, is that rarest and most precious of things: an album that combines pop and dance with substance and soul. You can blast this unashamedly without feeling like you just had a lobotomy, as there is genuine craft to the songs. More importantly, it's a hell of a lot of fun, an uplifting and thoroughly entertaining record.