Ask any wedding DJ: People aren’t very adventurous when they want to dance. It’s nice to talk about some electronic music future, but Aphex Twin clears most dance floors faster than you can say, “Heck no to techno.”
For his part, Fatboy Slim — a k a Norman Cook, a British DJ and producer who was the bassist for the ’80s pop band Housemartins and the man behind dub-rap-dance outfit Beats International — just wants to move the crowd. To achieve that goal, in Better Living Through Chemistry he’s made one of the most fun, shamelessly genrehopping dance albums of the year.
Better Living Through Chemistry is a combination of go-for-the-gut break beats, good-time house grooves and anything else that might prod a party into a frenzy: Who riffs, Beastie Boys references, squealing synths, dead-funky cowbells that recall War at their peak — about the only thing missing on Chemistry is a sample of “Louie Louie” (Fatboy has already used that, on an old remix).
His stock in trade is that dance-club standby, the slow-building house crescendo. Such songs as “Give the Po’ Man a Break” and “Punk to Funk” swell to an inevitable climax but also display a smart twist or two. On “Give the Po’ Man a Break,” the title phrase is chopped up and repeated maniacally over a ferocious beat as queasy turntable scratches push the song to its apex. A nifty battery of marching-band drums hustles “First Down” forward, boosted by a well-worn clubland keyboard riff — throughout, Fatboy Slim walks a careful line between the new and the familiar.
Sometimes, Fatboy tries too hard to be liked. “Going Out of My Head,” the album’s first single, strays into novelty. After a dramatic pause, the opening riff from the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” plunges comically into the mix (you can almost see the light bulb appear above some music executive’s head: “Techno for rockers!”). Similarly, the polka-ish synth noodling on “The Sound of Milwaukee” succeeds in getting your attention — and then becomes downright annoying.
But most of Better Living Through Chemistry is a populist, highly danceable mix of ’80s hip-hop, house and techno. And if we can forgive Run-DMC for “Walk This Way,” we can pardon Fatboy Slim for his goofy excesses. Let’s hear it for giving the people what they want.