Back when electronica was the next big thing -- around the time the only things that needed counting in Florida were dead German tourists -- Norman Cook was just another washed-up pop musician. Little wonder the former member of the Housemartins and Beats International decided an identity change was in order; better to check the bounce than bounce the check. Cook took on the alter ego Fatboy Slim, hitched a ride on the Chemical Brothers' little red wagon, and out of nowhere became an international sensation. You can't watch Cinemax without hearing a track from his first two albums, and his songs sell more product than Michael Jordan. No wonder some folks hailed his second disc, 1998's You've Come a Long Way, Baby, as one of the most influential albums of the 1990s; it's still everywhere.
So where does Cook go from here? Has he peaked out? Has his legendary appetite for booze and blow sapped him of his creative genius? Yes. No. Maybe. Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars is like a Halloween bag of tricks and treats. Some of the tracks pick up where You've Come a Long Way, Baby left off, and some should have just been left off. The disc has a strong enough start: "Talking 'Bout My Baby" is a slow build, constructed around a scratchy piano loop, but just as it reaches its high point, the song gives way to "Star 69," a walk through mind-numbing house music. This song single-handedly earns the parental advisory sticker: It contains the word "fuck" 42 times (not counting echoes, which would push the total up into the hundreds), enough to make any 13-year-old giggle.
Cook, following the lead of many techno acts before him, has turned to guest stars this time around, and a couple of the best songs on the album feature Macy Gray, whose soulful grit perfectly matches Cook's laid-back grooves. "Love Life" is sort of a dirty love ballad, while "Demons" is a hauntingly beautiful exercise in introspection, though it goes on way too long and digresses into an unnecessary drum-machine jerk-off. But some guests are just unwelcome: "Weapon of Choice," featuring P-Funk bassist turned professional celebrity Bootsy Collins, is a jumbled mess, like going into a stereo store, tuning every receiver to a different station, then cranking them all up to 11. (Do they have medication for dance fever?) Turns out the most notable guest appearance hails from six feet under: The Doors' "Bird of Prey" has been deconstructed by Cook and reassembled into "Sunset," and Jim Morrison never sounded better. Death did him some good after all.
The disc's highlight is "Drop the Hate": Cook builds the track around the half-sung sermon of a black Baptist preacher, encouraging us to "drop the hate and forgive each other." (Maybe Cook can remix "I Have a Dream" and release it as a B-side.) And of course it wouldn't be a Fatboy Slim record without the obligatory catch phrases. There's nothing as memorable as "Right about now, the funk soul brother," but he gives it a shot: "Yeah, you don't stop"; "Retox the freak in me"; "What the fuck"; "Push the tempo." The last is the most infectious, showing up in what's got to be a Chemical Brothers homage, "Ya Mama." Expect to hear it in Coca-Cola commercials come Super Bowl Sunday.
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The biggest disappointments are the half-assed transitions between the songs. Cook's a talented DJ, but he pretty much mailed this one in; there's no flow, no groove, and occasionally you might catch yourself looking up to make sure your CD player isn't skipping. At its best, the album makes you want to sink back into the couch and reach for your substance of choice. At its worst, it makes you scramble for the remote to skip to the next track. In the end, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars is just that -- mediocre.