Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 113 - Fatboy Slim

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

It was probably only a little over ten years ago that the music of Fatboy Slim sounded like the music of the future. This is funny, because it's impossible to listen to "The Rockafeller Skank" today without hearing an incredibly dated sound. The first pangs of "Right about now...the funk soul brother" are like a time warp takes you back, because when the song talks about "now," it will always and forever refer to 1998. (Remember when Osmosis Jones was a viable film concept? "The Rockafeller Skank" made an appearance there). 

Part of the reason for Fatboy Slim's brief moment in the sun was probably the broad appeal of this song, which was also marketed to death in movie trailers, television shows, and commercials. It has that sort of indescribable quality in which you can't help but smile when listening to it, even if you normally shy away from electronic music. "The Rockafeller Skank," and most of Fatboy Slim's hits, were electronic club music for those people who dislike electronic club music. It took the genre and gave it a goofy personality and some genuine character. 

But Fatboy Slim's music is like the guy at the party who is really entertaining when you first meet him, but starts grating on you as the evening continues. His one trick - lively samples sped up and slowed down - wears out pretty quickly, and there's not a whole lot else for the man to offer. If some would-be prognosticators were wrong in their assumptions about electronic music's ascension, in hindsight it's easy to see why. It's all flash and no substance. 

So beyond a few of his most well-known hits, I didn't find a whole lot of hidden gems from Fatboy Slim this week. "The Rockafeller Skank" was the game-changer that turned out to be a novelty song. But it's almost better that way. Novelty songs can be fun too.

WEEK 113


WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I had heard "The Rockafeller Skank" hundreds of times, and I think "Praise You" once or twice. But I wasn't familiar with Fatboy Slim's work pre- or post-1998, which as it turns out is not all that surprising, because a lot of it is pretty boring. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to You've Come A Long Way (1998) every day this week. I also listened to Better Living Through Chemistry (1996) twice, and Halfway Between the Gutters and the Stars (2000) once. 

WHAT I LIKED: If Fatboy Slim is only a few degrees away from one-hit-wonderdom, at least he has a decent song to go down in the annals next to his name. "The Rockafeller Skank" spans for seven minutes in its album version, and its a bizarre ride that begins with drum beats and chanting, throws in some squealing rockabilly guitars, and ends with tempo changes and all sorts of crazy sound effects. It's one of those songs that everybody's heard, but no one really know that much about it; if it comes on at a bar, someone in your group is going to perk up his or her head and exclaim "This song!" The fact that it's been marketed to death might sway some people away from this track, but if you listen to it as if for the first time, it's actually pretty great. 

I'd say about half of the other tracks on You've Come A Long Way, Baby live up to the I-don't-know-what-the-hell-I'm-listening-to-but-I-kinda-like-it quality of "The Rockafeller Skank." "Right Here, Right Now" might be formatted a little more for the dance floor, but it's still a quality listen, and "Gangster Trippin' " is a kind of sonic carnival, a romp through all sorts of colorful sounds. "Praise You" is a bit more restrained, but it shows that Fatboy Slim has more up his sleeve than merely layering a bunch of loud beats atop one another; the song has an excellent structure that builds in interesting ways. 

The other albums didn't have as much to explore. While "Going Out Of My Mind" and "First Down" were fun songs to work out to, the bulk of Better Living Through Chemistry is your run-of-the-mill dance music from the nineties. Which brings us to...


You've Come A Long Way, Baby didn't necessarily give a soul to electronic dance music, but it at least provided a lively face to a genre that often veers toward the cold, the distant, and the far-too-serious. But this album, surely Fatboy Slim's magnum opus, is stuck between the blandness of Better Living Through Chemistry and the over-compensation of Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars

Better Living Through Chemistry lacks all the stuff that makes You've Come A Long Way, Baby so much fun. The music lacks any sort of surprise, which is sort of disappointing next to the strange juxtapositions of Slim's best work. Listen to "The Weekend Starts Here" or "Everybody Needs A 303" and if you're not out on a dance floor, you're not going to be entertained. 

But Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars tries too hard to replicate the idiosyncratic brilliance of You've Come A Long Way, Baby  "Talking 'Bout My Baby" is like "Praise You," but instead of staying with chill piano samples, it veers into angry vocal rants. Whether it's "Mad Flava" or the unfortunate eleven minutes of "Song for Shelter," this album feels like Fatboy Slim going "You liked that? Here! I'll throw in even more! Look how quirky and funny I can be!" 

And, sadly, Halfway only makes one realize that half of You've Come A Long Way, Baby isn't that great either. In between the memorable tracks are numerous songs that can only be described as filler. "Kalifornia," "You're Not From Brighton," or "Acid 8000" are come across as sort of mediocre when put next to their more lively brethren. 

CONFESSION OF THE WEEK: I know Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook is not the dude on the cover of You've Come A Long Way, Baby, but I can't stop thinking that nonetheless.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Fatboy Slim has had a long career as a performer and DJ, lending his talents to all sorts of stuff. There seems to be no natural place to go next, but I've intrigued by Here Lies Love (2010), which Wikipedia describes as "a concept album and rock musical made in collaboration between David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, about the life of the former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos." In short, it sounds like a game of musical Mad Libs gone terribly wrong, and might be worth a listen. 

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "The Rockafeller Skank"


NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Wilco. Is that American enough for the 4th of July?