From their 1998 debut, Remedy, through 2003’s Kish Kash, Basement Jaxx managed to court both the dance-snob vanguard and the U.K. pop chart with equal success. More than a decade later, their first three albums (which also includes 2001’s Rooty) hold up remarkably well, despite their innovations having been long-since strip-mined for commercial use. The Brixton duo’s latest, Junto, finds the group looking over its shoulder, perhaps tacitly relieved that the future isn’t their problem anymore. The ferocious spirit once evidenced in the stadium-bulldozing bass of “Where’s Your Head At?” and the reckless collision of genres, and a borderline-obscene Siouxsie vocal, in “Cish Cash” have faded. In their place is a respectable (i.e. not cringe-inducing) nod to now, and a purposeful coalescence of well-established strengths.
The album’s intro declares, “Lords, ladies and lowlifes, welcome to the world of Basement Jaxx!” It’s a serviceable declaration of intent, undermined somewhat by music that could’ve been lifted from a National Geographic special. The 10 minutes of hope-deflating dross that follows, from the dreary Shirley-Bassey-goes-calypso of “Power to the People” to the musty, cobwebbed deep house of “Unicorn,” portends plenty of cringing ahead. But with the glamourous pomp of its Bond-biting string section (and song title), “Never Say Never” begins to suggest something more than the weary air of deadlines being perfunctorily met, and what follows is a version of the Jaxx that is, if not exactly inspired, at least fully awake.
Even in their diminished current form, Basement Jaxx still have a facility for turning pure cheese—dusty piano scales, boilerplate diva-soul squawking, and tacky synthetic brass sections with “Yamaha” stamped on the side—into unabashed cheesy fun. The world probably didn’t need to know what “Le Freak” sounds like fronted by a cockney version of Missy Elliot (“What’s the News”), or what Ricky Martin might’ve become under the Bomb Squad’s anarchic tutelage (“Mermaid of Salinas”), but there’s a refreshing lack of smirking irony throughout. And while the roughneck drum n’ bass of “Buffalo” is about 12 years past its sell-by date (imagine Dizzee Rascal freestyling over a Metalheadz compilation), it flaunts an unblushing enthusiasm and blissful disregard for the current vogue.
The invigorating eccentricity of Basement Jaxx’s best work is largely relegated to the margins here. It’s in the ghostly theremin haunting the dancehall in “Rock This Road,” the rumbling, sun-warped sub-woofer in “We Are Not Alone,” and the distant, foreboding grind of metal beneath “Sneaking Toronto.” It’s a faint but potent reminder of why this group was once so important to the genre, and coupled with their still-impressive ear for hooks, it ultimately makes this time-travelling tour through late-’90s/early-’00s electronica a trip worth taking.