[2 February 2009]
When Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, made waves with his 1998 hit-machine You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, my vision of the artist himself was—and is—rather hazy. Sure, I knew “Praise You” and “The Rockafeller Skank”, but the anonymity of electronic musicians never really coalesced into a public image of who Cook was. Until recently, I was under the impression that he was, himself, fat. I also vaguely connect him with Christopher Walken, thanks to the popularity of the video for “Weapon of Choice”.
So I’m coming somewhat blind to the Brighton Port Authority’s first (and perhaps only) album, I Think We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat. I think, though, that Cook would prefer it that way. Although this side-project-of-sorts features the talents of some of the best-known names in music, Cook seems to be deliberately distancing himself from his oxymoronic moniker. The album sleeve talks about the BPA as if they were some kind of ‘70s supergroup, and presents I Think We’re Gonna Need… as a collection of tapes recovered from a abandoned warehouse. Nowhere in this story do the words “Fatboy Slim” appear.
The songs here fall into two broad categories: either they’re cheerful, slickly-produced mid-tempo electro-pop ditties with inane lyrics, or they’re minor-key, trip-hop-lite songs with inane lyrics. The ones in the first category are almost supremely likeable, if superficial. Those in the second are mostly irritating, and will find most listeners (or, at the very least, me) reaching for the skip button.
The album’s strongest track is also a cover. “He’s Frank (Slight Return)”, originally by the Monochrome Set, appears here with a funkier bassline, abundant handclaps, and almost subterranean vocals from Iggy Pop. It’s an insanely catchy song and kicks the album off in fine form. The reggae-ish “Should I Stay or Should I Blow” is the most danceable tune on the disc, but it’s overshadowed by the lush, beautiful “Seattle”, which pairs Emmy the Great’s light vocals with a quavering organ. “Toe Jam”, the album’s first single, will probably go on to sell a great many copies, both because it has David Byrne singing lead and because its music video features a number of pleasingly buxom ladies. And the album closes with another cover (also, weirdly, with abundant handclaps): Nick Lowe’s “So It Goes”, which appears here in an appealingly shaggy, loose form.
Unfortunately, there are a number of duds hidden in the album, and they range from the dull to the downright irritating. On one end of the spectrum is the yawn-inducing “Spade”, which is sung by the normally-exceptional Martha Wainwright. There’s nothing wrong with the track, per se—it just slips past without leaving the slightest impression one way or the other. On the other end is “Dirty Sheets”, which couples a disconcertingly dirty guitar line with disconcertingly dirty lyrics. (“He’s going to make you leak / Beneath the sheets” is just about the least romantic sentiment I can think of.) Somewhere in the middle is “Jumps the Fence”, in which Connan Mockasin, who sounds about ten years old, repeats “He jumps the fence like a toad” ad nauseum for three and a half minutes.
The lyrical problems are hardly confined to “Jump the Fence”—except for the two covers here, every song has at least four laughably bad lines. It’s just that the better tracks are strong enough to make up for the words. Sometimes the lyrics take on a sort of poetic grandeur despite themselves, as in “Seattle” (“I can see a sky forming like a wire warming up America”). Some are simply cliché, like “Superlover” (“Lady, turn the page / And sit yourself down / And keep on waiting for the special / Life”). But no other track can touch “Toe Jam”, which is so truly nonsensical it sounds more like a drug-induced fantasy than anything else: “A boy looks at a girl / And a girl looks like a pony / She gallops all day long / In between my toes”. Ken Kesey would be proud.
For all that, though, I can’t really not recommend We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat. What’s good here is excellent fun, and what isn’t is mostly forgettable. The album has the capacity to be just as big of a hit maker as You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby was. Who knows? Maybe we’re about to witness the renaissance of Fatboy Slim.