Basement Jaxx Scars

[XL; 2009]

Styles:  house
Others: Daft Punk, Underworld

The cover of Basement Jaxx's fifth album, Scars, features an owl’s head attached to a human body with two different-colored shoulders. It's wearing a silver knight’s helmet -- covered in feathers, strings, balloons, and belt buckles -- and standing on top of a mountain. It’s a mess of a cover, but it fits well with the UK dance duo’s chaotic new record.

Opening with “Scars,” Basement Jaxx start things off by immediately reintroducing their audacious late-90s club music. Fortunately, the group retreats from the far more conventional sounds of Crazy Itch Radio, but the opener is still decidedly dull. The crux of the sound here is a distorted sample of a choir, made to sound inhuman, like a piece of machinery. It makes for an uninteresting track in terms of sound, but an unfortunate, superfluous rap verse — a little too sincerely 90s — ends the song on a sour note.

From here, however, the album picks up, turning into a manic cacophony. “Raindrops,” featuring vocals from Basement Jaxx’s own Felix Buxton — the only song on Scars to not have a guest singer — has layers and layers of noise and effects, making the song sound like it’s coming out of the sky during a downpour. It bears the influence of Phillip Glass with its fast keyboard arpeggios, suggesting a level of highbrow aesthetics that has been missing from the group’s music in recent years. It’s a highly personal, yet still club-ready hit, and it's also the best song here.

But the most rewarding aspect is that Scars contains some of the most bizarre and intriguing moments of Basement Jaxx’s career. The nightmarish R&B of “She’s No Good” would be pop music if it didn’t sound so much like a sped-up horror-film soundtrack. The delicate “My Turn,” which lightens up the album’s persistently bold — sometimes overzealous — keyboards for processed acoustic guitar, is a wonderful synthesis of ballad and dance music. The circus-like “What’s a Girl Gotta Do,” with the androgynous soulful vocals of Paloma Faith, displays a polyrhythmic charge, featuring so many random blasts of noise that it sounds like a field recording.

All this, however, has nothing on the album's true anomaly, “Day of the Sunflowers (We March On).” With vocals from Yoko Ono mixed with the group’s characteristic mania, the song is far from conventionally enjoyable, yet its extraneousness is too unexpected to ignore. There’s about two minutes of Yoko Ono singing, largely indecipherably, about, well, nothing and everything in particular. Then, suddenly, the more dramatic synthesizers fall away, revealing Ono’s voice in all its clarity as she goes off on a four-minute, free-associated rant: “Open like a flower, come get naked with me/ Music take me home, tie me up in melody.” The speech continues with Ono adding intermittent sex noises — almost a typical stylistic decision for her as a singer if it weren’t for the club music playing behind her.

Scars can hardly recover. How does one follow up Yoko Ono commanding the listener to get naked with her? Sure, this record might be a return to form, as people will predictably label it -- and it’s nice to hear the band getting back to what it's good at -- but this also proves to be Basement Jaxx’s weakness. If anything, the duo is a little too stuck in its 90s roots. This is their best album in years, but there’s no real progression here. Ono’s mindfuck of a performance is proof: when a band needs to include such bizarreness as their record’s experimental centerpiece, perhaps they are working a little too hard to prove their expressive worth. Nonetheless, just try standing still during this album. You’ll only fail.

1. Scars
2. Raindrops lyrics
3. She's No Good
4. Saga
5. Feelings Gone (feat. Sam Sparro)
6. My Turn lyrics
7. A Possibility
8. Twerk
9. Day of the Sunflowers (We March On)
10. What's a Girl Got to Do?
11. Stay Close
12. Gimme Somethin' True
13. D.I.S.tractionz

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