Fatboy Slim

Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Astralwerks)

A few years back, when the record industry was trying its damnedest to stir up an electronica youthquake, Norman Cook, a.k.a. Fatboy Slim, was the hit maker most likely to be denigrated. After all, how hip and underground could he be if every freakin' tune he created wound up in the background of a commercial? Now that this manufactured trend has gone the way of all manufactured trends and the vast majority of the artists who had briefly benefited from their artificially inflated profiles have returned to the club scene that is their natural habitat, the Slim one is still standing. Why? His sound may be a synthesis -- Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars,as it were -- but it's a highly effective one that infuses dance with pop and pop with dance in a way that freshens up both genres.

"Talking Bout My Baby" kicks off the proceedings on Gutter with a little bit of soul, using a sample from Wet Willie (of all bands) as a base upon which to pour "Praise You"­type keyboards and swelling electronics that keep threatening to climax but never quite do so. More typical of Cook's formula is "Star 69," a bubbling mass of rhythms structured around a vocal snippet -- "They know what is what/But they don't know what is what/They just strut/What the fuck?" -- that provides shape to an often shapeless form. This fondness for appropriating other voices, which initially earned Fatboy derision in some purist quarters, has long been his secret weapon, and he makes it work to his advantage whether the channeled singer is dead or alive. "Sunset (Bird of Prey)" mates a skittering groove with the funereal intonations of Jim Morrison ("Bird of Prey" turned up on the CD reissue of the posthumous Doors release An American Prayer), while the ultrafunky "Love Life" and the metallic-organic blend of "Demons" are boosted by the still-breathing Macy Gray at her trippiest.

Because most of Cook's soundscapes are succinct by the style's standards (only the last track, "Song for Shelter," tops the seven-minute mark), the latest offering from this ex-Housemartin won't be hallucinatory enough for some rave-heads. For anyone who's interested in more than just backin' that ass up, though, Gutter is the place to be. The disc might not be the most progressive slab of plastic on the planet, but it's the kind of compromise anyone can accept.

 
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