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Soulful Spirit

Photo by Michael Lavine

FATBOY SLIMHalfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Skint/Astralwerks)

He’s come a long way, baby. Once pop music’s funk soul brother, Fatboy Slim now sheds his image as dance music’s crossover star, reinventing himself as a DJ with more than just e-friendly tracks in his record crate. Using his soulful 1998 smash “Praise You” as a blueprint, Fatboy crafts his new aural architecture by relaxing his tightly packed funk coils in favor of a more languid vibe. You’d think Fatboy found God or something — he’s downright spiritual at times on Halfway, working the mixing board like a preacher working the pulpit. Rather than beat the devil out of you with his twisting breakbeats, this time around he’s ministering with a gentler touch.

Beginning with the piano-blessed invocation of “Talking Bout My Baby” and ending on the gentle pulses of a house track for the extended sermon “Song for Shelter,” Fatboy mostly abandons his big-beat bounce for a less assaultive approach. Stretching spines with some gummy funk, he taps Macy Gray for her sensual, throaty croons on the saucy “Love Life”; calls beyond the grave to resurrect Jim Morrison’s drifting vocals into the trance textures of “Sunset (Bird of Prey)”; and deploys Bootsy Collins’ elastic ax on the whimsical “Weapon of Choice.” But in case you’re still on the come-up and not the cool-down, Fatboy sticks to his old tricks for tracks like “Ya Mama” and “Retox” — all back-breaking breakbeats and looping party anthems.

The final effect is more ambitious yet less satisfying — Slim’s evangelizing on “Drop the Hate” feels more affected than earnest, and his second team-up with Gray on “Demons” won’t please fans of either artist. Still, if Halfway is an analogy for a choice between the devil’s sinful pleasures and the Holy Ghost’s blissful rapture, Fatboy Slim seems more than capable of unleashing both spirits on you.

LAURIE ANDERSON Talk Normal: The Laurie Anderson Anthology (Rhino)

If you’ve always wanted a recording of Laurie Anderson’s storied performance Duets — where she fitted her violin bow with a strip of magnetic tape and “played” along with a record — your search must continue. This recently released compilation is apparently meant to be a marketable affair — like an attempt to bring the household name into the household. The letdown is that you’ll find nothing rare on either disc, no outtakes or demos, and nothing not from the Warner Bros. catalog. For the one and only Laurie Anderson — with her glorious voice-bends, machine posturing and automaton/Mom lullaby lilt to hackneyed stories frequently about falling — her own self-produced anthology leaves much to be sought after either online or in dusty record stores.

There’s no denying the crafty smarts that made Anderson a household name. “From the Air”’s Simon Says routine still frightens while it snickers: “This is your captain/we are about to attempt a crash landing . . . captain says put your head on your knees . . . put your head in your hands/captain says put your hands on your head/put your hands on your hips/hee hee hee . . .” Ditto for the easy, violin-based “Born, Never Asked” and its long-legged-bird-walking twang set to handclaps. The collection winds from “The Night Flight From Houston,” an anecdote that reveals itself and ends just as fast, to “Coolsville,” where Anderson wanders from her signature matter-of-fact singing tone to an Elizabeth Fraser– esque vocalise. When the second disc hits a wall called 1995, you may go searching through the little cardboard box for more music, but, alas, you’ll come up with none. And you’ll ask, “Now, where am I ever gonna find the 1977 7-inch ‘It’s Not the Bullet That Kills You — It’s the Hole’?”

Talk Normal is rounded and even, like a Laurie Anderson 101 class syllabus: a rough outline of a master body of work marked not by hits or singles but by folkloric storytelling, superdry comedic timing and those oh-so-un-warm-and-fuzzy structuralist themes that changed us the first time they came into our homes over amplifiers and headsets. (Wendy Gilmartin)

 

LINKIN PARK Hybrid Theory (Warner Bros.)

Like their kindred spirits 311 and Incubus, newcomers Linkin Park simultaneously provide a soundtrack to skating the half-pipe and passing the peace pipe. Sandwiched among their raging slabs of guitar are meandering, meditative passages that owe more to the stash box than the fuzz box.

These SoCal boys are in the habit of setting up songs with tiny sonic events, so when the hammer bludgeons down it’s all the more punishing (check the Depeche Mode–ish intro to “Crawling”), and throughout, their use of loops and samples adds depth of field to an already impressive display of dynamics. But the set’s trump card is vocalist Chester Bennington, who’s just a great rock singer, period. He’d have found a home in any era of rock & roll, and perfectly offsets the rhythmic chitchat of MC Mike Shinoda. Bennington’s throaty performance on the chorus of “Pushing Me Away” borders on the Dio in its melodramatic power and sustain.

Linkin Park are on a mission to seamlessly blend rock with rap, and they’re coming closer than most to successfully melding the rhymes and the riffage. There’s no tradeoff on Hybrid Theory; the album retains all the street-level grit and grind of the heaviest of their contemporaries, while introducing genuine musicality and actual songs to the mix; credit producer Don Gilmore (Eve 6, Pearl Jam) for subtly sweetening the melodies while retaining the band’s considerable natural fiber. Unlike so many of the come-latelys in this genre, Linkin Park have both the angst and the artillery. (Paul Rogers)

 

FÉLIX BALOY Baila Mi Son (Tumi)

Cuba has long been famous for its music and the special flavor of its tropical rhythms. When a revolutionary political system felt it necessary to silence that music — music that is like blood running through the veins of the Cuban people, like the sweet juice extracted from their sugar cane, or the magical aroma of their cigars — the music fell into a deep sleep. Félix Baloy, born in Mayari in the Oriente region of Cuba, began singing at a very early age, bewitched (like many Cubans) by the immortal vocalist Benny Moré. When the revolution came and Baloy had to work as a milkman, as a shoe repairman and on the railways, it was as if the music had died.

In 1996, Juan de Marcos, the inspiration for and director of the now-famous Buena Vista Social Club (he’s called by his musician friends “the Christopher Columbus of Cuban music”), created his Afro-Cuban All-Stars with singers such as Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Pio Leyva and, of course, Félix Baloy. Baloy’s de Marcos–produced first solo CD, Baila Mi Son, showcases his powerful voice, and with the accompaniment of his Afro-Cuban friends, gives us the pleasure of once again enjoying romantic and sweet boleros like “Después de Esta Noche,” hot rumbas such as “Misericordia, No Aguanto!,” sones montunos in “Mami te Gusto” and cha-cha-chas from the ’50s in “Ven a Bailar el Cha-Cha-Cha.”

Juan de Marcos has established his own “seal,” bringing us this big band of wonderful long-lost Cuban musicians and songs to make our minds travel back to the unforgettable and unreplaceable ’50s with a salad of sones montunos, boleros, cha-cha-chas, guaguancos, changuis . . . Traditional Cuban music has once again awakened to urge people to shake from their feet to their heads and, little by little, beat the system to come out victorious. (Carlos Manuel Costa)

 

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE Forbidden Love (Barsuk)

Only Death Cab vocalist Ben Gibbard could deliver a phrase like “screaming drunk disorderly” with such malaise. The Washington state–based quartet has been tagged a shoe-gazing emo band, and the foggy listlessness that pervades this EP (on the heels of We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, released last year) is probable cause, but Gibbard brilliantly walks the line between that genre’s self-absorbed wallows and the terminally ironic detachment of many indie-pop poets.

One can hardly imagine Modest Mouse crooning earnestly about courting schoolteachers, boys and “the letter jacket that wasn’t yours to own” (from the tender, ’50s-inspired “Technicolor Girls”). Gibbard manages to swing from this innocence (albeit bittersweet and plagued with childish arguments and dashed hopes) to full-blown disillusion and dysfunction in less than 20 minutes — without losing his understated wit: “Misguided by the 405 ’cause it led me to an alcoholic summer/I missed the exit to your parents’ house hours ago” (from “405”). The band’s music doesn’t follow Gibbard’s downward spiral, but remains a solid incarnation of the moody/minimalist/melodic indie pop that young people sprinkle sugar on and swallow whole. And why not? Despite critics’ ceaseless comparisons to Doug Martsch and Built To Spill (each one of them deserved, mind you — and can you name a better mentor?), Death Cab is irresistible: the three-quarter lilt of “Song for Kelly Huckaby,” its double-tracked vocals and high-hat hiss, or the warped folk of “405,” whose Kristin Hersh–style strumming shimmers more than jangles.

Gibbard’s stinging lines spill over into bar after bar, unforgiving reminders of your own shrinking aspirations and receding youth. “And as they all grow older/the truth will be understood/because we never turn out the way/we thought we would.” (Kristin Fiore)

Laurie Anderson photo by Lynn Goldsmith; Linkin Park by James Minchin III


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