Playlist

Fat Boy Slim
You've Come a Long Way, Baby
(Astralwerks)

Fat Boy Slim
On the Floor of the Boutique
(Skint)

Norman Cook, aka Fat Boy Slim, certainly has come a long way. After trading in his bass guitar (remember the Housemartins?) for a pair of turntables, he quickly rose through the English dance scene to become one of the best club DJs in the world. But coming after Better Living Thru Chemistry, an Yber-cool drum-and-guitar-loop dynamo that helped him break through commercially, Baby is a creative step back--an album in which several strong songs are nearly lost in a flood of mediocrity.

It's not hard to find examples of the latter. Baby's first cut, "Right Here, Right Now," is a yawn, and "Rockafeller Skank" feels played out. In addition, Cook over-uses sampled lyrics on otherwise passable numbers such as "Kalifornia," "You're Not From Brighton" and, worst of all, "Soul Surfing," a track with so maddening an opening chorus that it practically begs a listener to execute violent acts on his CD player to make it stop. Fortunately, "Gangster Tripping," which features a nice layer of looped horns, and "In Heaven," which includes 108 repetitions of the word "fuck," are much better thanks to Cook's predilection for mixing breakbeats with rock or surf guitar riffs, and "Praise You" is such an astoundingly good pop song that it nearly saves the record single-handedly. Too bad Baby concludes with "Acid 8000," an almost enjoyable effort ruined by an irritating vocal refrain ("If this don't make your booty move/Then your booty must be dead") that epitomizes the unevenness of the entire project.

But don't write Cook off. On the Floor of the Boutique stands head and turntables over Baby, which is four months its junior. Derived from a live set, the disc showcases Cook's impeccable taste and unparalleled mixing skills. Over the course of seventeen tracks, he throws down groove after groove, moving effortlessly from old-school funk (Jungle Brothers, onetime Denverite Fred Wesley) to new-school techno (Hardknox, Cirrus) and everything in between. Boutique spotlights just two of Cook's own songs, but it captures the sweet sounds of the renowned Fat Boy Slim show in all its glory.

--Sean McDonald

James Carter
In Carterian Fashion
(Atlantic Records)

Like David Murray, Carter, a saxophonist who a Melody Maker writer dubbed "jazz's first rock star," generally plays like an Eagle Scout who earned all the right badges twice--the first time for the skills, the second time for the thrills. Putting each quality at the service of the other in perfect combinations, Carter produced several near-classic albums. But whereas Murray has loftier purposes (and is generally up to their challenges), Carter goes for sheer adrenaline this time, and the results are a bit ragged; many of the tunes rip under the intensity of the playing. For instance, slow songs such as "Lockjaw's Lament" are played too raffishly. The musicians display little regard for the delicacies of mellowness and melancholia--particularly the drummers, who zoom ahead like hard-bop rockets.

Nevertheless, this approach can sound refreshing in the right context: On "Skull Grabbin'," for example, the horn riffs take off like a gaggle of roadrunners over a juggernaut sonic base featuring useful Hammond B3 input from pianists Cyrus Chestnut, Henry Butler and Carter regular Craig Taborn. Elsewhere, Carter's virtuosity yields plenty of satisfying sound effects. He impersonates some Hendrix-like "Foxy Lady" feedback with his tenor sax on the title track, which includes his brother Kevin on guitar; he then uses a single bass-clarinet burp to swing into a duet with tenor saxophonist Cassius Richmond in Kenneth Green's "Odyssey" and creates squalls of high notes worthier of Peter Brotzman than Brotzman's own squealing stereotypes. Some musicians are able to make points with avant-noise cliches because they equate playing the chameleon with changing the background. But Carter just can't help being himself.

--John Young

Various Artists
Hempilation 2: freetheweed
(Capricorn)

By definition, benefit albums succeed in direct proportion to the caliber of entertainer they attract. Were that the only criterion for success, Hempilation 2, a fundraiser for NORML, would be a runaway hit: It includes appearances by virtually every pro-weed notable this side of Woody Harrelson--and since these days the marijuana-legalization issue is second only to the Free Tibet movement as a lightning rod for righteous celebrity activism, that's not bad. Throw in a jam-happy record label and the sponsorship of High Times magazine, the stoner bible, and you'd appear to have a can't-miss project. Unfortunately, the people putting this album together forgot to include good music--a slip-up I'd chalk up to short-term memory loss.

On Hempilation 2, most of the big-name contributors and several cult acts check in with cuts that are staid and uninspired. George Clinton's lethargic, Snoop-inspired contribution sounds like detritus from an earlier session; Willie Nelson's "Paul and Me" is equally uncompelling; and the Long Beach Dub All Stars' cover of the dancehall standard "Under Mi Sensi" is an out-and-out disappointment considering the excellent paeans to pot once offered by the band's precursor, Sublime. Likewise, only the most ardent activist would pay to hear the Freddy Jones Band sing a Traffic song ("Light Up or Leave Me Alone"), Government Mule cover Humble Pie ("30 Days in the Hole"), From Good Homes tackle Charlie Daniels ("Long Haired Country Boy") or Spearhead honor Steve Miller (Homer Simpson's version of "The Joker" was better).

There are a few exceptions, however. Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise does a fine, country-tinged "Don't Bogart Me," and "Mary Jane," a Blue Mountain original, glows with the unassuming radiance of the group's other work. As for Vic Chestnutt, he gets extra points for "Weed (to the Rescue)," which concerns medical marijuana. Still, these efforts aren't able to compensate for the slew of overlong, meandering, unexpectedly purposeless duds on Hempilation 2. Despite its subject matter, the album definitely isn't smokin'.

--Joshua Green

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