"Let's just make one thing we can all have when it all crumbles down," Emily Oldfield sings on "Hot 'n Cold," a tingly bit of sing-along synth-pop that comes late on Kish Kash, the third (and best!) album from London house/techno duo Basement Jaxx. It's my Lyric of the Year, and I love it so much in part because I have no idea who Emily Oldfield is.
On Kish Kash, producer/DJ-team Felix Burton and Simon Radcliffe recruit a bevy of name voices to carry their ecstatically soundscaped songs: There's first-wave punk princess Siouxsie Sioux, 'NSYNC-er J.C. Chasez, alt-soulstress Me'Shell N'degeocello, and Brit teen rapper extraordinaire Dizzee Rascal, among others. Emily Oldfield? I have no idea. But her vocal nails in place the most open-hearted party record in recent memory. The world may be a mess right now, but for 50 some-odd minutes you can find refuge in this mix, which is so relentlessly intent on giving pleasure and so absolutely free of detachment that it suggests that the secret key uniting all great pop music might be the artist's audible delight in his or her own mastery: What else connects Chuck Berry and Motown and Sleater-Kinney and '80s hip-hop and Basement Jaxx?
"It makes no sense at all to me," Oldfield exclaims with ineffable joy. She croons; we swoon; and "synth-pop" seems like a failure of language to capture the giddy chaos of synth squiggles, heavy-breathing hooks, door-alarm bleeps, pencil-sharpener whirrs, cowbell tinkles, CD-skip beats, backward chants, and random vocal asides that keep Oldfield company.
She's singing about sex, of course ("I beg to hear you, hear you when you come," she pleads), which is as you'd expect on a record from a pair of rave-raised kids who worship Mr. Prince Rodgers Nelson above all. If Jaxx's first record, 1999's Remedy, was essentially two glorious singles ("Rendez-Vu" and the should-be-historic disco anthem "Red Alert") surrounded by a bunch of interesting filler, their next, 2001's Rooty, was nothing less than the best Prince album since Sign O' the Times. And Kish Kash is the best Prince album since Rooty. Has Andre 3000 heard this album? And if so, will we be able to rouse him from his envy-driven depression?
The Prince connection -- i.e., their natural affinity for and ease with R&B and funk --is why Basement Jaxx have left fellow house/techno crossovers such as the Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Fatboy Slim, and Armand Van Helden in the creative dust, and it's why it seems more reasonable to compare them with American hip-hop super-producers such as Timbaland and the Neptunes. And that connection is foregrounded on Kish Kash like never before. "Right Here's the Spot" is sly, Princely funk replete with chants of "delirious" and sex-pot vocal asides, with N'degeocello's gender-confusion vocals an inversion of Prince's Camille persona, while "Plug It In," with Chasez on vocals, sounds like an overpowering bizarro-world version of "U Got the Look."
Which is not to say that Jaxx are tribute artists. Part of the beauty here is that the pair's dense, genre-devouring technique (like the best parts of the past 30 years of pop all played simultaneously at an all-night dance party) is also a discernible style.
And before we run out of space, let's say a quick word for perhaps the most exciting single of the year: "Lucky Star," in which bhangra riddums, acoustic guitars, hip-hop drums, dabbles of human-beat-box, breathy sighs and moans, and Madonna-esque vocal choruses (given the title, probably not a coincidence) form a giddy foundation from which a rattled Dizzee Rascal (whose own fine debut, Boy In Da Corner, should finally get a U.S. release next year) explodes: "I've come a little way in a little long time/From doing stray robberies and petty crimes/I've come far in a little long way/I would just like to say I FEEL FINE," he raps. Me too, Dizzee! --Chris Herrington
Fate's Right Hand
Nashville songwriter Rodney Crowell has had a few brilliant moments over the course of his career. His new record is not one of them. As unexpectedly good as last year's The Houston Kid was, this one wallows in clichÇ and new-age/12-step-recovery culture in a way that would make even Steve Earle at his most self-righteous blush. Crowell announces that it's "Time To Go Inward" (just one of several cloying song titles from the record), and the listener might not care if he ever comes back out of his enlightened cocoon.
Just take a gander at a few more song titles from Fate's Right Hand: "Still Learning How To Fly," "Earthbound," "Riding Out the Storm," "Preaching to the Choir"(you're right about that, Rodney), and "This Too Will Pass." You can guess what they're about -- earnest looks inward a la AA's moral-inventory model. Crowell makes his self-loathing by the numbers routine predictable and sickening. One wishes that he would turn his self-lacerating wit outward in the way that he skewered his hard-drinking, wife-beating father on The Houston Kid.
Oh, the tunes sound okay, musically speaking. Same for Crowell's singing, the session guys' competent and tasteful playing, and the overall production approach. If you didn't pay attention to the piss-shiver-inducing lyrics, this record wouldn't be half bad. But there's really no getting past the words. No way at all. --Ross Johnson
On Your Way Home
After the release of 2001's very traditional Mountain Soul, a true labor of love, Patty Loveless has returned with more of what makes her such a treasure in the muddy waters of neo-country: She's not afraid to simply play country music and leave it at that. Still inspired by her hardcore bluegrass album, Loveless relaxed on this album and used more raw takes and less production. However, fans will not be disappointed at the balladry, rockabilly, and foot-stomping music she delivers on On Your Way Home.
Several things make Loveless stand out from the seemingly endless stream of cornpone Barbies who parade across the videos of CMT. The first is her voice. It's the real thing, with the twang and sass of a honky-tonk angel. The daughter of a coal miner from Kentucky (sound familiar?), she seems to come by that Appalachian twang naturally.
Culling from the nameless sea of Nashville songwriters, she always opts for singer-songwriters like Jim Lauderdale, Julie and Buddy Miller, Marty Stuart, and Rodney Crowell. These artists not only have something to say, but they do it with elegance, style, and a cerebral quality that's missing from most other Nashville hacks.
Finally, Loveless gets kudos for being consistently good and consistently country, never being tempted to forsake her roots and take the rock-star route. The result is a seamless country album that delivers the usual pleasing fare but with just enough rough edges to make it even more appealing. -- Lisa Lumb