Crazy Itch Radio
hen a group decides to use the radio as a thematic device and puts their first single in the lead-off spot, there’s no way to approach the album without a sense of trepidation. But these warning flags definitely don’t seem to occur to Basement Jaxx’s Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe. Similarly, you’d expect the duo to have gone through some soul-searching after getting the boot from their label, Astralwerks, leaving a track record of two masterpieces and one still-could-be-a-masterpiece-but-give-us-another-year-for-it-to-sink-in. Apparently Basement Jaxx must be pretty dense, because their newest album Crazy Itch Radio neither baits such initial ‘on-paper’ criticisms, nor reveals any hammed stabs at maturity.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The group begins their fourth studio album with an intro that bellows out the most overwrought string section committed to record in recent memory—as hermetic dance maximalists in a sea of vogue minimalism, they play their image like a puppet. Further evidence can be found on the album’s first single. “Hush Boy” might be the group’s “Oh My Gosh” part deux, but it blows up everything that “Oh My Gosh” needed for singer Vula Malinga—soaring horns, a bridge as soft as a down comforter, and a guest spot for the Cookie Monster on the chorus. The whole song is a hammed stab at immaturity and succeeds in spades.
Keeping Kish Kash’s supersaturated compositions but forgoing the kinetic melee, string and horn sections are used to fatten Crazy Itch Radio’s songs and allow for a greater variety in tempo. The string section, in particular, also creates truly strange juxtapositions of mood. The duo employs an eerie bit of Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho Theme” which slices through the floating melancholic layers of “Smoke Bubbles.” Thematically, the sample makes sense, with the doomed relationship of “Smoke Bubbles” circling the drain, but the strings jolt instead of cohere—they sound more like a novelty than an earned addition.
Maybe novelties make sense when listening to Crazy Itch Radio. It’s the group’s first whole-hearted adoption of the pop idiom. Although Kish Kash took the Grammy for best dance album, it was a snapshot of Basement Jaxx’s transformation toward a full-on pop band and Radio is its culmination—their metaphorical embrace of the Top-40 (lame album concept or not). Most of the songs are built around an inviting pop-nugget core not found in the overwhelming splinters of Kish Kash. Whether underpinning the ebullient widescreen banjo-stomp of “Take Me Back to Your House” or the series of disappearing instruments in the nostalgic “Keep Keep On,” each song radiates.
And that might be the root of why so much of the album feels underwhelming, despite any large flaws. Songs like “On the Train” and “Everybody” are flawlessly executed, but also sound tempered. The transition from tracks to songs forces the group to rein in a style that needs to be no-holds-barred. When Basement Jaxx uses this restraint to their advantage like the gentle simmer of “Lights Go Down,” it’s easy to buy the direction they taken. When it doesn’t, Crazy Itch Radio just makes the group appear dense.
Reviewed by: Nate De Young
Reviewed on: 2006-09-06