England's DJ Tall Paul is a crowd-pleaser. If you don't run with the pack, he could probably give a shit whether you like his music or not. It's important to note this because it's appropriate to listen to his collected original tracks on Back and Forth in their rightful context -- not as the object of some highbrow chin-scratching like we're all used to doing here at PopMatters, but as a party record, pure and simple. And in that context, it's pretty good.
I mean, don't get me wrong -- big goofy club anthems like "Go Get It" and "Be There" are crap with a capital "K". But they're fun crap, dammit. DJ/producers like Tall Paul give me hope that progressive dance music can be as disposable and innocuous as the latest Avril Lavigne song, and in these days of anti-rave witch hunts, there's a lot to be said for that. Sometimes, it's good to be harmless.
Speaking of disposability, the biggest downside to Back and Forth is that much of it already sounds pretty dated. These are UK dance "choons" as they sounded when they seemed poised to take over the world back in the mid-'90s, before everyone got sick of happy, feel-good sounds and started getting into all the dark, tribal stuff you hear in most clubs now. This should come as no surprise; some of the tracks on here, like the handbag house anthem "Rock da House", have been kicking around for years, and it's in dance music's mercurial nature to chuck every new sound at almost the exact moment it starts to achieve widespread popularity. Being a crowd-pleaser has its drawbacks.
Still, I must admit to having a soft spot for tracks like the regrettably brief "Everybody's a Rockstar", with its gleefully tuneful trance riffs, and Paul's big 1998 hit "Let Me Show You" (originally released under the name Camisra), one of those noisy, house-trance rave-ups that shamelessly and expertly uses air raid sirens, female screams, drum rolls and every other trick in the book to get drunk club-goers really excited. Sometimes it's fun to be part of the crowd and let the crowd-pleasers go to work on you.
Elsewhere, the Tall One pushes his sound in other directions, though the results are mixed at best. "Lunes Por la Noche" is a luscious downtempo track that's very cool except for a synth horn that makes the whole thing sound just a little too Art of Noise for my taste. "Take it Easy" is a godawful reggae number, while the disc's final cut, "Freefall", is a fair-to-middling exercise in New Age-y synth noodling (if this guy doesn't have a few Kitaro records in his collection, I'll eat my yoga mat). At least Paul's trying to broaden his horizons, something he doesn't really have to do when he's consistently getting ranked one of the UK's top DJs for cranking out club fodder.
But why, I ask you, did Tall Paul and the folks at Moonshine feel compelled to give us two separate remixes of "Precious Heart," Paul's dreary reworking of the INXS song "Never Tear Us Apart"? I guess because this track was the DJ's most recent club hit, but milking it like this just strikes me as gratuitous. Then again, the whole fad of doing club remixes of old '80s pop songs is starting to strike me as gratuitous, too, so I could be biased. If you really liked INXS, who knows? Maybe you won't find Tall Paul's appropriation of Michael Hutchence's voice as morbid as I did.
Ultimately, if you really want to get to know Tall Paul's crowd-pleasing ways, you're probably better off getting one of his mix CDs like his 1999 classic Duty Free or last year's Mixed Live. Given the freedom to mine other people's material, Paul's actually a very fine talent; here, confined to his own tracks, his limitations are more obvious.
I should also note for the record that the U.S. version of this release contains a bonus CD chock-full of remixes of "Rock Star", "Rock da House", "Freebase", "Be There", and, dear god, two more versions of "Precious Heart". But the press copy didn't include the bonus disc, so as far as the crowd-pleasingness of that one goes, you're on your own.