Over the last 20 years, Basement Jaxx have established themselves as one of dance music’s most reliable — if eclectic — duos. Proving the rule that house music can accommodate just about every musical flavor, the Brixton duo float ska, aggro-rock, hip-hop, funk, disco, Latin jazz, several varieties of world music and much more over beats that have rarely been less than stimulating. And they’ve always boasted discerning taste in collaborators: Their last major album, 2009′s Scars, included Kelis, Santigold, Dev Hynes, Yoko Ono and many others.
But all those cameos and their own omnivorous style may have covered up a problem that afflicts many DJ-originating acts: Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliff aren’t always the most substantial songwriters. When their hooks hit as hard as they do on early hits like “Red Alert” and “Where’s Your Head At,” that’s mattered little. But on Junto, where only one track, “Never Say Never” featuring ETML, includes an outside collaborator’s compositional input, that drawback finally catches up with them.
It doesn’t help that three of the album’s prerelease singles are included only on the deluxe version: The jubilant “What a Difference Your Love Makes” is the most fully formed of their recent tunes; “Back 2 the Wild” adds immediacy, while “Galactical” offers a welcome dip in tempo. When it comes to guest stars, Junto also seriously skimps: The most notable entertainer here is rapper Mykki Blanco, who, according to the duo, disappeared before finishing the drum ‘n’ bass cut “Buffalo.” The track is, not surprisingly, brief and tangibly incomplete.
BJ’s fifth full-fledged album isn’t all duds and fragments. “Summer Dem” proves they can still fuse contemporary R&B with classic club grooves with results that here recall early-’80s boogie anthems. But Junto more often bunts where the pair typically knock it out of the park. “Mermaid of Salinas” fuses a wistful bossa nova melody — steamy flamenco guitar strumming that recalls their own “Rendez-Vu” — and other jaunty elements that never congeal; the stately Sam Smith-like ballad “Love is at Your Side” offers more whoosh-y studio effects than melodic development. Given that Disclosure has finally made classy U.K. house a mainstream U.S. commodity, Basement Jaxx’s latest should be so much sharper. It’s the first time this ordinarily restless duo has dared to be dull.