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Changing Sames

Four Dance Music Vets Get Stuck In A Rut On New Discs

76 TROMBONES:...Is probably the only thing Basement Jaxx left off its new disc.

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 11/8/2006

Forgive fans for assuming electronic dance music might have still had a commercial chance in hell during the early 2000s. It was certainly in fine fettle creatively, and though it wasn't making big aesthetic strides the way it did during the '90s, that only meant it was settling into something stylistically firmer and less amorphous. But by 2004, many fans that came to dance through alt-rock had gone back to their first love. And still others moved on--or, more to the point, online. The fashion-forward who cottoned onto electronic music early were also some of the first to figure out how to download their music for free, which put a serious crimp in dance's sales potential. You don't think recent chart-topping albums by Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart are being bought by people under 40, do you?

But maybe the problem is that many of the artists who were doing big things during electronic dance's last major wave have stuck a little too closely to what they were doing a few years ago. Take Basement Jaxx, London DJ/producers Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe. In 1999, the duo dropped Remedy, a big, boisterous house album that capped an exceptional year for that style. Basement Jaxx's 2001 follow-up, Rooty, though, marked the real paradigm shift. Rooty felt as much like postpunk as updated disco, its sharp corners and truncated track lengths willful at first but intoxicating once you let them come to you.

The new Crazy Itch Radio (XL) is more of the same, emphasis firmly on more. It's probably the duo's most uneven album, though most Jaxx records are so ridiculously generous with ideas that the term is superfluous. Of course, a disc containing disco beats, cotton-pickin' banjo, Gypsy horns, 872 guest vocalists, and a Muppet on the hook of the first single--"Hush Boy," whose Fozzie Bear doppelgänger on the chorus turns the song into a love-it-or-hate-it proposition--is going to be uneven. Much of the time, though, Crazy Itch is as sparkly as Jaxx's previous albums, and even the overly cute moments work, e.g., the line "Let's put some music on/ Make it a country song" from the Big-and-Rich-on-E "Take Me Back to Your House." Still, it's hard not to wonder when Jaxx's everything-at-once style will hit a dead end--how much more kaleidoscopic can you get before all those colors run together into a muddy brown?

The same year as Remedy, Moby issued Play, his first album for V2, some of whose songs even your grandmother knows by now thanks to the countless TV ads they appeared in. On its own terms, Play is still a smart settlement between Moby's DJ-friendly work and the earthier tone you have every right to expect from a guy on the far side of 30. Play sold 10 million copies, prompting Moby to model 2002's 18 on it, and 2005's Hotel on 18, with more color leaching out of the blueprint during each succeeding iteration.

So the subtitle of Go: The Very Best of Moby, which covers the V2 period, is a misnomer, especially given that his best track of the period, "In My Heart," is presented here in a different, inferior mix than the one on 18. In addition to a bonus remixes disc--a couple of which, notably Olav Basoski's "Bodyrock," smoke the originals--there's a puzzlingly chosen live version of 1995's happy hardcore anthem "Feeling so Real" and a who-cares new remix of 1990's "Go," just in case you forgot Moby used to make dance music. Which you might: Play's "South Side" became the blueprint of Moby's least satisfying aural persona, as a bland maestro of badly sung pop-rock. Recent years haven't been totally unproductive, though: Teany, Moby's flavored iced tea brand, is pretty good.

Until James Murphy's LCD Soundsystem issued its 45-minute long track for Nike, it was harder to imagine Murphy and DFA cohort Tim Goldsworthy putting their stamp on a beverage line. But The DFA Remixes Chapter Two (Astralwerks) has diminishing returns in common with Go. A/B-ing Chapter One with the new disc suggests a few differences: One is more "live" (handclaps, emptier acoustic space, beats a tad slower), while Two is more "electro" (sheets of synthetic sound, quicker tempos). Obviously, there are tons of exceptions in both cases, thus the scare quotes, but the thing that matters most is that only one track on Chapter Two really grabs and holds. At 13 minutes, Goldfrapp's "Slide In" demonstrates what the DFA does best: it sounds finished after six-and-a-half minutes, only to rebuild itself from the ground up. It's the sound of audible tinkering, but Murphy and Goldsworthy so obviously love what they're doing that you happily dive back in with them. It also helps that the Goldfrapp track contains the only decent vocal on the disc.

Manipulated voices have long been Luomo's game. Born in Finland, Sasu Ripatti has recorded under a slew of names--Vladislav Delay, Uusitalo, DLAY--but it's as Luomo that he's made his deepest impact. His 2000 Vocalcity remains his most audacious fusion of experimental-electronica verities and deep-house mores, and if 2003's follow-up, The Present Lover, was less consistent it also peaked higher.

Paper Tigers (Huume), on the other hand, sounds like it's gasping for air. Ripatti's trick of stuttering and backflipping a single vocal line until it gives up new meanings fails him here; if earlier tracks like "Market" or "So You" seemed bottomlessly mysterious, something like Tigers' "Good to Be With" sounds tedious, inspiration turned to joyless formula. And where his plodding synth parts used to be buoyed by implacable bass lines and cavernous atmosphere, nearly all of Paper Tigers feels ground out. The exception is "Really Don't Mind," which also features the friskiest drum track Luomo's put down. Too bad he didn't switch things up that way on the rest of the album, too. Use the same formula long enough and you're bound to get bored--and to take your listeners with you.

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