Fans of Fatboy Slim’s past releases may be a bit surprised by his new album, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Astralwerks). The band pulls back from its signature big-beat sound – a cheesy, hook-laden, sample-frenzy sound that throws techno, rock and pop together into a musical Cuisinart to produce hits like Praise You and The Rockefeller Skank. Many fans loved the sound embodied by those songs because Fatboy Slim successfully added a warm and humorous touch to what is often labeled a cold and robotic sound. Others rightfully found the music obnoxious and grating.
Fatboy Slim incorporates elements of disco, funk, techno and house all in a successful effort to get people up and moving on the latest album.
Big beat is still in Fatboy Slim’s chest of sonic tools, and it shows on the opener Talking Bout My Baby. It has a rolling gospel feel to it, like a slower, funkier version of Praise You. It’s not a song that has much potential to stick in the listener’s head and is one of the rare throw-aways on the album. But it does serve its purpose as an opener, drawing the listener into the album.
The album intro doesn’t prepare listeners for what comes next – the stunning Star 69. Here, all the silliness of big beat is thrown out the window, and all of Fatboy Slim’s experience mixing beats in the clubs of Britain comes out in full force. The track is based on a pounding rhythm that sounds as if it had been lifted straight out of a rave at its 2 a.m. peak. Warbly synth effects and a sampled voice provide the hook great techno songs require. Star 69 is easily one of the best dance anthems of the year. Retox also has a similar rave-feel to it, with a funky house rhythm and catchy scratch guitar hooks. Songs like these are probably the most straight-ahead dance tracks Fatboy Slim has produced.
While other songs on the album do not have quite the same hit-repeat effect as Star 69, there are still a lot of great songs that show off Fatboy Slim’s amazing skill at mixing and matching samples and beats into dance collages. Sunset (Bird of Prey), uses a sample of Jim Morrison reciting poetry over an ambient trance track. Morrison’s haunting baritone adds an aura of warmth to the song that lulls the listener into the hypnotic world the song wants to create. The only problem with this song is its placement right after such a mover as Star 69.
Fatboy Slim shows he has a lot of soul with tracks like Love Life, which has a funky, low-down, ’70s black-sploitation vibe that sounds as if he had been listening to one too many Curtis Mayfield albums. Pop star of the moment Macy Gray adds her distinctive chipmunk-esque vocals on top. Gray also appears on the trip-hop torch song Demons, complimenting perfectly the song’s laid-back sound with vocals reminiscent of Billy Holiday.
Ya Mama, based around thrash guitars crashing into electronic effects, will suit fans of Praise You. The track brings back memories of the Chemical Brothers circa Block Rockin’ Beats.
Drop the Hate also incorporates big beat with sampled snare drums pounding out the beat, what sounds like an organ playing in the background and a gospel preacher crying out over top. The effects give the song a sound oddly close to Crystal Method’s (America’s one attempt at big beat) Busy Child.
There really isn’t a bad track on Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars. Fans of the cheesy and joyously dumb music on past Fatboy Slim albums are going to have a harder time taking this one in. This album is definitely more for an electronica audience, pumping out sounds of a late-night rave. Still, for those willing to give it a chance, this is one of the best techno albums to come out this year and shows Fatboy Slim heading in a promising new direction. Fans can only hope rumors that this is his last album are vastly overrated.