Basement Jaxx burst onto the British music scene at the end of the last millennium via the underground clubs of Brixton, bringing to the charts a uniquely exuberant, Latin-tinged version of house that was both innovative and hugely accessible. Hits such as Red Alert and Rendez-vu established Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe as a genuine crossover act with an appeal far beyond the dance floors of their native South London, and although their days of top ten singles may be behind them, this intriguing collaboration with Dutch jazz/pop orchestra Metropole Orkest shows they are still a restless creative force.
A mixture of live performances taken from a recent concert in Eindhoven and new studio recordings, these reinterpretations of the Jaxx’s back catalogue feature a 60-piece orchestra and 20-strong choir, conducted by Metropole Orkest’s Principal Guest Conductor Jules Buckley, who also produced the project and scored all the orchestral arrangements in tandem with Buxton.
After the first few tracks, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d stumbled into the latest season of Proms concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. The source material may be by Basement Jaxx, but this is straightforward, unadulterated classical, with the original compositions almost unrecognisable on first listen.
Red Alert becomes an epic, Wagnerian overture, with massed voices, stirring strings and monumental brass taking the place of the familiar ‘yo yo yo, yo yo yo yo’ chant. Similarly, Raindrops (from 2009’s Scars) is transformed from disco stomp into a soaring, full-on orchestral tour de force, complete with twinkling harp, and new offering Mozart’s Tea Party – a trite pastiche of the great man’s signature style –would be very much more at home on Classic FM rather than BBC 6Music. It’s undeniably a confident, highly accomplished opening salvo, but whether it will appeal to the group’s established fan base is more debatable.
The middle section of the record is generally the least interesting, although Hey You’s eclectic mix of The Lambada, James Bond themes and Balkan instrumentation is certainly ambitious. Elsewhere, a slow, stately Bingo Bango loses all of the 2000 hit’s energy, and Lights Go Down is bland and overwrought.
It’s only on the last third of the album that the carnival vibe of Basement Jaxx really starts to shine through, with an effervescent performance of Do Your Thing kicking off the long overdue party. The original’s jazzy dynamic is developed further rather than completely overhauled, with the light, breezy brass and strings complimenting the song’s infectious rhythms.
Where’s Your Head At is another high point, with delicate harpsichord neatly counterbalancing the choir’s huge chorus, while Good Luck benefits from the belting voice of The Bellrays’ Lisa Kekaula. Basement Jaxx Vs Metropole Orkest ends with Samba Magic, an irresistible combination of Buena Vista Social Club piano and high class cabaret. It’s great fun, encapsulating perfectly the disparate range of influences that make the Jaxx so much more than just a dance act.
When it’s purely orchestral, Buckley and Buxton’s project is impressive but rather cold and unengaging. Reworking what is essentially club music into convincing classical pieces is no mean feat, but it’s only when more contemporary voices and beats are brought into play alongside the violins, flutes and trumpets that proceedings really come to life. Even then, one wonders how many Basement Jaxx aficionados would really rather listen to these versions than the tried and trusted originals.
A brave experiment then, and more than likely a fabulous live experience too (the show is at the Barbican this month), but ultimately it’s more of a novelty for the curious than an essential purchase.