Sunday, June 14, 2009

What's Your Weapon Of Choice

FatBoy Slim
Halfway Between The Gutter And The Stars

Review by John Bush
The cover of Norman Cook's breakout Fatboy Slim album, You've Come a Long Way, Baby, was a good clue to the contents, picturing as it did thousands of LPs straining the racks in Cook's record room — undoubtedly just a small portion of his massive collection of sampling material. Inside, Cook unfolded a party record for the ages, long on fun (though understandably short on staying power), chock full of samples pillaged from all manner of obscure soul shouters and old-school rap crews, triggered and tweaked ad nauseam. With his third LP, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, Cook pulls away slightly from the notoriously fickle pop charts and crossover kids courted on his last record. Instead, he makes a conscious attempt to inject some real hedonism back into the world of dance — he is a DJ, after all — and sure enough, the cover matches those aims: it's a long shot on a beach (Ibiza or some other far-flung shore), with the sun shining out of someone's behind. The intro even pokes gentle fun at the loved-up R&B tradition with an extended sample from some bygone soul artist waxing overly poetic about his girlfriend. From there, Cook tears into an acid-techno rampage named "Star 69," a track that takes few prisoners and sounds closer to Plastikman than Propellerheads, though it does include the Fatboy Slim trademark — a rather blue vocal sample repeated continually for nigh on a minute (funnily enough, the track was entirely removed from the clean version of the album).
Despite the torrid pace set early on, there's still quite a bit of the used-bin scavenger left in Cook; the most patented big-beat anthems here, "Ya Mama" and "Mad Flava," include all the expected displays of crowd-moving hip-hop calls, unhinged beatbox funk, continual drum breakdowns, and plenty of rawk riffs. The first single "Sunset (Bird of Prey)" is another potential crossover move, featuring what is easily the album's most recognizable sample source — Jim Morrison from the Doors. Borrowing from Morrison's posthumous LP of poetry An American Prayer, the "collaboration" works better than could be expected, with Morrison's pseudo-mystical, surreal vocal — "Bird of prey, flying high/In the summer sky, gently passing by" — floating over some comparatively atmospheric breakbeat funk by the Fatboy.
Sniffy electronica purism aside though, Cook remains, if not the best overall producer in the dance world, certainly in its top rank, with an excellent ear for infectious hooks, tight beats, and irresistible grooves. On advice from friends the Chemical Brothers, Cook recruited collaborators for the first time — nu-soul diva Macy Gray, funk legend Bootsy Collins, fellow superstar DJ/producer Roger Sanchez — and the two tracks with Gray, "Love Life" and "Demons," are arguably the highlights of the entire album. In a similar fashion to David Holmes, Cook's ample production talents are served best with a vocalist lending focus, and "Love Life" is a seven-minute ride veering from dirty, warped funk to noise-heavy hip-hop breakdowns while Gray scats, growls, and purrs with clearly audible glee. After Bootsy's joint (the surprisingly bland "Weapon of Choice") and a hackneyed social-message track ("Drop the Hate"), Gray returns to save the album with another unbelievable performance on the half-resigned, half-hopeful gospel soul of "Demons." The closer, "Song for Shelter," is a masterful stroke of sun-splashed house recorded with help from Roger Sanchez and an ecstatic serenade to the dance music experience by Roland Clark (interpolated from his single "I Get Deep"). In all, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars is possibly Norman Cook's best possible statement after being — nearly simultaneously — picked up by a multitude of notoriously fickle pop consumers and thrown away by his previously rock-solid dance fan base. The hooks are unmissable and there's plenty of big-beat techno from a master of the form, but there's also a good amount of mature material that would undeniably appeal to many listeners in the dance world if they ever condescended to give it an objective listen.

1 Talking Bout My Baby
2 Star 69
3 Sunset (Bird of Prey)
4 Love Life
5 Ya Mama
6 Mad Flava
7 Retox
8 Weapon of Choice
9 Drop the Hate
10 Demons
11 Song for Shelter