Dance music is at its most exciting when it’s at its most impure, whether it’s Detroit techno’s mixture of Kraftwerk and Funkadelic or drum ‘n’ bass’s marriage of dub reggae and rave. This year has been unexciting because too many producers have stopped looking outward; house music has become burdened by the lumbering monotony of double-disc bores like John Digweed and the strained soulfulness of San Francisco’s Naked Music label.
Basement Jaxx – the Brixton-based Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe – might have a strong house-music pedigree, but the duo possess an open-minded sensibility that includes everything from Brazilian music to R&B. While their debut, Remedy, bucked convention with a punky sensibility – Buxton and Ratcliffe even dubbed their music “punk garage” – it lacked the body-moving beauty of early singles on their Atlantic Jaxx label like “Samba Magic” and “Live Your Life With Me.” Now, on Rooty, Basement Jaxx refines the ambitious but untidy sprawl of its debut into a carnivalesque mix of two-step, house, funk, and disco with a modern take on George Clinton’s late-seventies mission of “rescuing dance music from the blahs.” On “Freakalude,” a Clinton Doppelgänger declares, “I don’t call it freaky, I call it funky,” and nearly every song on Rooty has an exuberant weirdness: Bass lines distort, soundscapes turn aqueous, and disembodied voices scream. A sped-up vocal and crunching breakbeats give way to a high-pitched falsetto and shimmering synths on “Breakaway”; a sexed-up singer begs for fulfillment over an abrasive bass line on “Get Me Off”; and a Gary Numan sample collides with a riotous chorus that owes more to Sham 69 than Sylvester on the album’s best song, “Where’s Your Head At?”
Yet amid the album’s anarchic sounds and eclectic roster of oddball vocalists – Kele La Roc, Mandy, and Jill Draper among them – there’s little sense of Buxton and Ratcliffe’s personalities. This repressive cultural moment – especially for a dance-music scene that’s the object of crackdowns from Brixton to the Bronx – demands a more ambitious statement, à la Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation or Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times. Rooty isn’t it, but it’s just one step away from greatness. (Basement Jaxx D.J. at Central Park’s SummerStage on July 14.)