Saturday, January 31, 2004
Basement Jaxx live were fantastic as per, though I think I took it to the limit by seeing them twice after having already seen them three times in the past - by the second time especially, familiarity with their live schtick had reduced the experience from mindblowing to merely satisfying, though it was great (in that "what the fuck" sense) to hear them drop an 8-bar at one point, and both their thumping 50 Cent/White Stripes bootleg and their transformation of "Living Room" into a celebratory house number (imagine a cheekier younger sister to "Do Your Thing") were inspired. What their new live set is perhaps slightly low on is total groove freak-out: for their Rooty tour they riffed on "Fly Life" for ages, creating a gloriously endless acid rainstorm, and before that for Remedy I remember the noisy sections of "Don't Give Up" being transformed into an epic of existential crisis and disorientation (beaten in my recollections only by Isolee somehow managing to wander into an astonishing half an hour detour of dubbed out acid house halfway through "Beau Mot Plage"). This time around they did this heavy metal guitar/house beat hybrid thingy that was lotsa fun but lost points for Armand Van Helden-ish obviousness, and it was representative of the slight over-emphasis on live musicianship (the drummer was great but he inevitably fell short of the clipped neurosis dance technicians like the Jaxx can program almost without thinking, and Simon spent what felt like half the set playing bass guitar) that for the first time tipped the delicate balance between electronic performance and cabaret show decisively towards the latter. Also, an hour and a half is just too short when you've got at least four albums' worth of back catalogue to play around with and a gazillion guest singers on permanent rotation. Still, these are minor quibbles - I've yet to come across any dance act (or in fact anyone period) who can put on a live show as exhilirating as these guys.

In terms of dance acts, the closest I've seen anyone come was Martini Bros at the beginning of last year, whose intimate performance at the proudly elitist Honkytonks bar was one of those secret treasures that singlehandedly makes the effort and toil (not to mention expense!) involved in devotedly following a single musical style all worth while. I paid $5 to go to a gig put on by an act hardly anyone has ever heard of, and it was one of the best I've experienced. Like the Jaxx, what the Martini Bros have mastered is the ability to combine incredible sounding dance music in a live setting with the sort of visual, charismatic elements we usually associate with a rock performance, without feeling like they've had to compromise in favour of rock values at all. That said, the duo really do steal most of their moves from rock, coming out in white jumpsuits that were part Elvis, part space suit, part lab technician (which neatly combines their tripartite status as scientists/explorers/performers), intermittently strapping on and playing electric guitars which might as well have had neon signs stating "I am a phallic signifier" on them, running around the tiny performance space making rock poses and snogging eachother like totally unselfconscious embodiments of Todd Haynes glam rock fantasies.

What made such antics justifiable in the context of a dance music performance was the degree of science which the duo still brought to the (mixing) table: guitar solos were interrupted by (or interrupted) seemingly randomly generated soupy glitch house grooves, shimmering electro riffs and their very own Isolee-patented twenty minute acid house interlude - fittingly, it came halfway through their signature tune "Flash - which had me feeling like either my heart or my ears would explode. Certainly I neither stopped dancing at any stage throughout their performance (another great thing about obscure acts: there's space to actually dance properly!), and this is where I think such well executed entertaining dance music performances really have the edge: you feel like all of your senses are being engaged and engorged with sensations.

What the performance demonstrated with considerable flair was the expansiveness of the duo's approach, which I don't think can be described as mere "eclecticism". Eclecticism always implies a certain weak-minded pluralism to me, a host of superficial genre dabblings orbiting around an absent core. Such binaries as exist within the Martini Bros' music (and they exist only to be collapsed) are themselves the core of the duo's art. Particularly, this disco/punk (or disco-punk) indecisiveness sets them up as the dance-music inverse of the DFA. Whereas the DFA provide dance-friendly grooves for otherwise clubfooted rock bands, the Martini Bros have a tendency to give rock makeovers to dance acts - from their more-famous-than-the-original garage drone remix of Tok Tok vs Soffy O's "Missy Queen's Gonna Die" (which they enthusiastically make their own in their live shows) to their transformation Grom's synth-pop track , into a meditative hum somewhere between Roxy Music circa "For Your Pleasure" and Spiritualized. On their "mix-cd" Cruising (it's more like a Back To Mine set, actually) they include this among a string of other recent tracks hovering on the borders between krautrock, electroclash, post-punk and other zone-out takes on rcok, including their own "Happiness", a floaty shoegazer number that actually reminds me of Kitchens of Distinction's "Gone World Gone".

Amazingly, after a year and a half of fandom, I only managed to come across their '02 album a couple of weeks ago, although by now pretty much all of it was familiar to me. Play is not, I think the definitive Martini Bros statement, although there's a surfeit of great material on there. The main problem I think is its track-compartmentalisation. Whereas their live show seemed to mix all their different styles and affectations into a kaleidoscopic swirl, Play's tricks are deployed sequentially, which makes the charge of eclecticism a lot less deniable. There's the luscious nueromantic number ("Boy/Girl"), some Perlon-style itty-bitty micro-funk ("Electric Monk", "Hot"), some deadpan electro ("The Biggest Fan", "Flash"), shoegazer ("Happiness"), glammy disco-punk ("Dance Like It Is O.K.") and even a few downtempo interludes. In its pan-genre sprawl the album reminds me strongly of Markus Nikolai's Back album (right down to the drained fey vocals), but whereas Nikolai's sprawl feels positively epic - not harmed by the presence of quite a few "solid core" tracks like "Backbeat" and "Superstar" - Play is, if not exactly stingy a la the Borneo & Sporenburg album, then nonetheless a bit inconsistent. What I really want are more tracks which seek to combine all of what makes this duo so compelling; tracks like "Boy/Girl" which you can really lose yourself in , such is the lush (almost overblown) expansiveness of their multi-accented grooves. Luckily the duo do have a new album coming out this year, but while first single "Love The Machine" bodes well with its hard jacking disco pulse, it remains to be seen if they can craft an album that lives up to their delirious live show.


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