Big dumb fun with big dumb beats on Astralwerks – is it 1996 already?
How well does Fatboy Slim hold up these days? Yes, he’s continued to release sporadic albums into this decade, but realistically, Norman Cook’s sound is of a particular movement in a particular time, namely big beat “electronica” in 1996. Sure, there are some of those classics that will never lose their magic – despite the best efforts of politicians, “Praise You” is still a dynamite jam – but any given Fatboy Slim album also had its fair share of filler. The formula here was usually the same: a big dumb sample from a 60s or 70s counterculture pep song, laced with some hip-hop beats and a few synthesizer squeals. For better or worse, Sonny J has given us an album full of this; in essence, we’re looking at Fatboy Slim’s Greatest Misses.
It’s hard to knock this album without sounding like either a crotchety killjoy or an obsessively of-the-moment hipster. Let’s start with Sonny J’s breakthrough single, “Can’t Stop Moving”. If you’ve heard it, it’s probably because you received a link to the viral video for it sometime in 2006, with the tagline “THE summer anthem!!!!” The video consisted of clips from the Jackson 5 cartoon show, fitted appropriately to the titular cries of the song (which, apparently, do not come from little Michael, but sure sound like it anyway). For me, the first time seeing this video was an exuberant experience, akin to the first viewing of David Elsewhere’s liquid body movements from Kollaboration 2001. This was the kind of audiovisual nugget that made me believe in the power of the human race for a fleeting few minutes. Divorced from the video, and two years down the line, it’s not as powerful now, but it’s still the hands-down highlight here.
So, for some reason, it took two years to get to a full-length from Sonny J, which is six lifetimes in the attention span of viral video followers. What of the rest of the album? Well, there are some other bright moments. “Strange Things” succeeds in making a goofy Gap commercial-ready good time out of some sampled psychedelic reverie. The title cut would make a decent Propellerheads single, with its mishmash of '70s spybreaks and petrol-scented organs. Meanwhile, the foul-mouthed wannabe bass player narrative on “I’m So Heavy” proves that Sonny J knows that sometimes breakbeats and childish potty mouths make a strangely attractive combo (see also: Fatboy Slim's “In Heaven,” featuring the refrain “Fatboy slim is fucking in heaven”).
Now comes the hard part, because, much as Disastro is full of moments that melt my icy critical heart, I can’t ignore the other half of the release, and it’s just grating. Let’s start with “Handsfree (If You Hold My Hand)”, for some reason chosen to be another single here. Yet again, we get a psychy '70s AM radio-sounding sample, and it just doesn’t work. But that’s what there is. Imagine a cut from Hair with breakbeats, and there you go. Still interested? Sonny J tries for cosmic intimacy on “Cabaret Short Circuit”, but instead faceplants into a swamp filled with jazzy ephemera and yawn-worthy harmonica stretches. “Enfant Terrible”, meanwhile, is a reminder of why The Go! Team aren’t as good as you thought they were. Sure, there’s energy, and here there’s even some French chanting, but it just sounds like some sort of demented youth pep song, where nothing really gels. Some of these samples are just pretty, well, disastrous.
Sonny J shouldn’t go away. He’s got the spark and the energy. I don’t doubt that his DJ sets are a kidult-filled sight to behold. He’s missed the vogue for dumb, silly breaks on Astralwerks by a decade, but on the bright side, it means he has the mistakes of his forebears to learn from, and now from his own debut outing: all the squeals and breaks can’t save a bad sample, especially if it's repeated ad nauseum, with vocal repetitions that grow to resemble hyperactive children.
In the meantime, watch the “Can’t Stop Moving” clip again and crack a smile. We could all use more of that.