November 16, 2000

Lets Twist Again, Like We Did Last Summer

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For those accustomed to the previous efforts by British DJ Norman Cook — a.k.a. Fatboy Slim — his newest release may provide some surprises. Cook’s last two albums, Better Living Through Chemistry and the breakthrough smash You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, were fast and frenetic drum n’ bass workouts focused around Cook’s distinctive, eclectic sampling techniques. Halfway Between The Gutter And The Stars, seems to have all of the ingredients necessary for a good Fatboy Slim album; they just seem to have been mixed in different proportions.

That’s not to say that this album is completely different from Slim’s last two, or that it is unrecognizable as a Fatboy Slim release. But there are signs that the perennial party DJ may actually be maturing musically, extending his music over a broader range of sounds and moods. While this can be a good thing, on some tracks Slim’s skills just can’t stand up to his grandiose vision.

Starting with the very first track, Slim seems intent on proving that he’s not just the guy who wrote that “funk soul brother” song. “Talking Bout My Baby” features overwrought, soulful vocals over a ’70s piano vibe for a very unexpected opener. It prepares you for anything, and that’s good, because what’s to follow is far from the usual electronic fare.

There a few typical Slim numbers here, of course. “Star 69” is immediately recognizable as a Fatboy Slim track, mainly because it features repetitive vocals over a pounding beat and wheezing samples. “Mad Flava” is probably the ultimate party track, with a driving, pulsating bass and an upbeat, old-school hip-hop feel to it.

And one look at the sophomoric lyrics of “Star 69” should dispel the notion that Fatboy has actually matured. Repeating the vulgar strutting of “In Heaven” from You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, the minimal lyrics seem designed to prove that Slim is as much of a boy as he’s always been.

Although Jim Morrison’s sampled vocals on “Sunset (Bird Of Prey)” lend it an otherworldly atmosphere, the music is pure Fatboy Slim. With soaring synthesizers and skittering beats, Morrison’s distinctive, spiritual voice actually seems at home within the mix, though it’s certainly not quite like your average Doors song.

On the other end of the spectrum, “Retox” demonstrates everything that can go wrong with the Fatboy Slim sound. With Ashley Slater’s droning, repetitive vocals placed over a droning, repetitive background, stretched out over five minutes, this song gets really boring, really quickly.

However, those songs are as close as Slim comes to his old sound on Halfway. Other songs demonstrate an obvious desire for experimentation and dabbling in new styles. On “Drop The Hate,” a gospel-type speech is layered over ragged electronic bleeps, squirts, and tons of feedback. The result is something that sounds like a much heavier, much less listenable version of Moby’s recent gospel explorations.

Another change for Slim is his increased reliance on vocalists on some of these tracks. Super-hip star of the moment Macy Gray lends her raspy vocal talents to two tracks. “Love Life” is the more successful of these, with a fun, loose vibe that serves as a perfect setting for Gray’s high-pitched squeals. “Demons,” on the other hand, is a slow, plodding ballad that might be at home on a true Macy Gray album, but doesn’t fit in at all here.

On the album-closing, epic house anthem “Song For Shelter,” Slim shows impressive restraint in building the song up from a slow, synth-driven opening to a satisfying climax over its 11 and a half minute length. This is by far the least Slim-sounding track, as “restraint” is the last word you would ever expect to hear describing the old Fatboy Slim.

Overall, Halfway is a decent album, and Slim’s DJing skills are obviously intact, but there still seems to be something missing here. Maybe it’s the catchy melodies and sense of fun that made the last two Fatboy Slim releases so enjoyable, or maybe it’s just that electronic music has become so overplayed lately that it takes a lot more to impress now. Regardless, right about now I sure do miss the funk soul brother.

Archived article by Ed Howard