Written by Caballero Oscuro
After a rock-solid early career that included their stellar debut album Remedy and its even better follow-up, Rooty, as well as their offshoot Atlantic Jaxx work, the Basement Jaxx have released some notably spotty work in the past few years. In the aftermath of their most recent album, Crazy Itch Radio, the Jaxx boys became disillusioned with their direction, feeling like they had drifted too far into pop territory at the expense of their edgier beginnings. Hence the title of their new collection, Scars, an attempt to return to their original form that resulted in a grueling recording process. According to Felix Buxton, “when we finished recording, it felt like we’d come out of a boxing ring,” a sentiment quickly echoed by bandmate Simon Ratcliffe.
So were they successful in recapturing their original magic? For the most part, yes. There are still a couple of clunkers, but also a few tracks that rate amongst their best work, even though (or because) they’re also fairly derivative of that work. Once again featuring a dizzying array of guest vocalists that reads like a United Nations roll call, the Jaxx supply the dance-ready grooves with a bit more bite than recent efforts.
The title track leads off the collection, an unfortunate placement choice that starts the album poorly due to its plodding, leaden pace. Far better to skip ahead to the album’s first single and 2009 summer anthem, “Raindrops,” a melodic, feel-good treat that immediately brings to mind their earlier hit, “Romeo.” It’s also the only track without a guest star, giving Buxton a chance to contribute his own heavily processed and perfectly matched vocals. From there, “She’s No Good” with Eli “Paperboy” Reed is a midtempo jam that doesn’t amount to much but doesn’t drop the ball. “Saga” features a guest spot by Philly-based singer Santogold, and its strong dub flavor mixed with her M.I.A.-like vocal makes this an intriguing standout that doesn’t really fit in the previous Jaxx canon but signals a welcome change. “Feelings Gone” featuring Sam Sparro reworks an early concept by Felix but not nearly enough to mask its Kylie-leaning Brit pop house sound, making this one to avoid. “My Turn” featuring Lightspeed Champion marries a bombastic bassline to a light acoustic guitar riff in a winning combination.
At the album’s mid-point, “A Possibility” with Amp Fidler takes an unwelcome turn into slow jam territory, although it includes an interesting riff that sounds like it was lifted from old-time classic “Blue Moon.” Next up is the set’s most up-tempo and possibly best track, “Twerk” featuring Yo Majesty. This one has a strong “Jump n’ Shout” feel right down to its energetic vocals, guaranteed to get your body in motion. “Day of the Sunflowers (We March On)” is most notable for its guest appearance by Yoko Ono, contributing her typically bizarre lyrics to a rather pedestrian track. It’s mostly impressive when you realize that she’s able to keep up with the Jaxx in her mid-'70s. “What’s A Girl Gotta Do” featuring Paloma Faith sounds like it’s from some insane circus and has just the right amount of anything-goes dance spirit to work well as a Jaxx track. “Stay Close” featuring Lisa Kekaula is another unwelcome and uncharacteristic downtempo attempt that sounds like it was ripped from Me’shell Ndegeocello’s catalog right down to the heavy bass guitar line and similar vocal sound. “D.I.S.tractionz” featuring Jose Hendrix bears some similarity to Prince’s French-leaning experimentation circa Under the Cherry Moon, making it an interesting change of pace but not really a Jaxx standout. Finally, “Gimme Somethin’ True” featuring Jose James closes out the album on a positive note with an instantly identifiable Jaxx sound.
After more than a decade in the game, it’s great to see the Jaxx still pumping out some innovative and fresh work. I’d personally prefer much less reliance on guest vocals as I like to hear what they come up with on their own in the lab without having to worry about mixing in a separate outside influence on each track, but they’ve always been heavy on guests even when the singers were seemingly just local friends so it’s not a major distraction. The new album carries enough pop appeal to allow new fans into the fun, while also including enough classic Jaxx touches to please their earliest fans. Scars is now available on CD and MP3 download.