This Week's Album Releases

Fatboy Slim | <i>Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars</i> Spice Girls | <i>Forever</i> Omar | <i>Best by Far</i> Outkast | <i>Stankonia</i> Russell Simins | <i>Public Places</i>
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The Independent Culture

Fatboy Slim | Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Skint) In the couple of years since the release of the prophetically titled You've Come a Long Way, Baby, Fatboy Slim has seen his situation shift from respected, streetwise DJ to all-conquering global pop sensation - the most successful dance act on the planet, no less - and, thanks to his marriage to Zoe Ball, tabloid gossip-column fixture, to boot. But despite being ushered into that rarefied world beyond the bouncer's rope, he retains a strong attachment to the edgier world of loved-up ravers that spawned his success - literally, straddling the gutter and the stars.

Fatboy Slim | Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Skint) In the couple of years since the release of the prophetically titled You've Come a Long Way, Baby, Fatboy Slim has seen his situation shift from respected, streetwise DJ to all-conquering global pop sensation - the most successful dance act on the planet, no less - and, thanks to his marriage to Zoe Ball, tabloid gossip-column fixture, to boot. But despite being ushered into that rarefied world beyond the bouncer's rope, he retains a strong attachment to the edgier world of loved-up ravers that spawned his success - literally, straddling the gutter and the stars.

How that has affected his music isn't entirely clear from listening to Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars. The only high-profile vocal guest - apart from the Jim Morrison sample on "Sunset (Bird of Prey)" - is Macy Gray, like Fatboy himself a recent addition to the ranks of the famous; and with Slim's old Freak Power chum Ashley Slater involved on a few tracks, there's a direct line of musical development sustained from his earlier albums. So, despite his appropriately blissful setting of Morrison's poetry on the single - whose mild, chilled manner is in marked contrast to Slim's previous big-beat anthems - there's still a sizeable complement of tracks, such as "Ya Mama" and "Mad Flava", where huge, clattering drums and fizzing acid-house synths collide with basslines lifted from old Doug Lazy tracks and samples drawn from distinctly uncool, left-field sources such as Jon Hiseman's Colosseum, the results looped and filtered to suitably floor-shaking effect and spliced to catchy hookline phrases exhorting us to "Mix the tempo up", "Retox the freak in me", or suchlike.

Within that basic formula, though, he has found a little more room to manoeuvre than before, bringing a more soulful feel to tracks such as "Demons", in which Macy Gray's vocal rides a slow, humid deep-soul groove; her croaky sensuality is further employed on the album's phattest funk cut, "Love Life", a neat framework of dovetailing syncopation hung from a rudely quacking bassline. The opening number, "Talking About My Baby", signals this fresh attitude by setting the vocal - a gospel-tinged testimony sampled from the Seventies swamp-rockers Wet Willie - to a bluesy piano vamp intro that rolls right through the track, keeping things perched on the edge of fulfilment as the other elements gradually accrete around it.

It's symbolic, in a way, of Slim's uncertainty about fully committing to this new style or returning to his floor-filling forte. He needn't worry: the resulting blend of big-beat, ambient, soul and funk makes Halfway... a more diversely satisfying album than its predecessor, one that capitalises on Fatboy's strengths while taking tentative steps in new directions.

Spice Girls | Forever (Virgin) Spice Girls Forever? Really? More threat than promise, it's a title that raises some obvious questions (such as: haven't we suffered enough?); but after you've listened to the album, it seems as if the girls are protesting a little too much, methinks. Because if it wasn't already blindingly obvious that the four remaining Spices were more concerned with their solo careers than their collective output, the oddly anonymous cast of Forever provides timely affirmation. Favouring fashionable R&B producers such as Rodney Jerkins and Jam & Lewis, they've adopted a bland pop-soul style that renders them indistinguishable from dozens of other girl-bands. For the first time, they sound like an inferior All Saints - a comparison made all the more damaging by the dismal nature of the material featured here. Perhaps they're saving their best hooks for their solo albums. Certainly, "Holler" is their least memorable single, and the rest of the album is, if anything, even less impressive - a situation brought into sharp focus by the ill-judged addition, as closing track, of their 1998 No 1 "Goodbye", a so-so song that seems like a bolt of godlike genius in such surroundings. In fairness, it should be noted that at least they've abandoned the woeful pastiches that made the Spiceworld album so teeth-grindingly awful - but now they have sloughed off others' styles, their own lack of a definitive musical style has become all the more apparent.

Omar | Best by Far (Oyster) Interviewing the R&B songwriter Jill Scott a few weeks ago, I was surprised to find her excitedly looking forward to a meeting later that evening, not with the nu-soul/garage star MJ Cole or Wookie, but with the original Brit-soul auteur Omar. Though somewhat becalmed in his native land (this fifth album arrives here by way of his French label Naive Records), Omar's star has remained strong and bright across the Atlantic, where albums such as his 1990 debut There's Nothing Like This and 1997's excellent This Is Not a Love Song proved hugely influential on the new generation of soul stars such as Scott, Erykah Badu, Maxwell and D'Angelo, recycling his blend of swingbeat and Stevie Wonder stylings back to the US in time-honoured British Invasion manner. Best by Far looks set to continue this special relationship, with a string of assured performances harnessing Omar's multi-layered vocal arrangements to pared-down, staccato funk grooves that stop some way short of garage's jerky gait, most draped in shimmering strings or rich horns. Serial collaborator Badu duets on a version of William De Vaughn's "Be Thankful for What You've Got", and Kele Le Roc crops up on "Come On", but the shrewdest sign of Omar's awareness of a market outside the narrow confines of the UK club scene is provided by a couple of silky Latin-soul grooves, "Essensual" and "Ester/Syleste", either of which would fit Jennifer Lopez as snugly as her strides.

Outkast | Stankonia (Arista) There's still a huge gulf in popularity between hard-core gangsta-rap and the more innovative forms of hip-hop, but the most interesting examples of the genre are increasingly coming from the points where the two approaches converge - a kind of rap dialectic discernible in the diverse offerings of such as The Wu-Tang Clan, Nelly and the Atlanta duo Outkast, whose fourth album continues the hot form of their multimillion-selling ATLiens and Aquemini. Andre "Dre 3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton embody the contradictions of modern rap: though they are still preoccupied with the jealousies and dangers of street life, and still retain, in tracks such as "We Luv Deez Hoez", a disparaging attitude towards women, there's no denying the more mature reflections bubbling to the surface of Stankonia's inventive grooves, nor the wordless eloquence of a sleeve design that portrays the red, white and blue in starkest black and white. Certainly, compared with the nihilism of most gangsta-rap, sentiments such as, "The coldest pimp be lookin' for somebody to hold/ The highway up to Heaven got a crook on the toll/ Youth full of fire ain't got nowhere to go," seem perfectly acceptable, even liberal. It's the aberrant articulacy of their rapid-fire verbal torrents that most impresses, though - not least in the Zappa-esque mix of pathos and bathos with which they relate the bathroom suicide of a pregnant teenager in "Toilet Tisha", a track without precedent in all of hip-hop.

Russell Simins | Public Places (Grand Royal) Ever since Ringo first set sail in his yellow submarine, drummers from Levon Helm and Don Henley to Grant Hart and Dave Grohl have been pushing for a greater share of the vocal limelight - a desire growing in urgency as their prime beat-keeping function has been increasingly supplanted by improvements in drum-machine and sequencer technology. On his solo debut, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's engine-room Russell Simins displays a commendable equanimity towards the new technology - even allowing the hip-hop legend Pete Rock to bring along his beat-box for one track - though his trademark funk-rock battery still drives along most cuts. It's his voice and songs that take centre-stage here, however, as he rides a roller-coaster of emotions, from erotic infatuation ("Public Places") through dysfunctional co-dependency ("Comfortable Place") to ruined relationship ("World Over"), in the company of a line-up that includes celebrity chums Mike Mills, Mike D, Viv Trimble, Chynna Phillips and Miho Hatori, alongside the core unit of the programmer Jamey Staub and the guitarist Rick Lee. Ranging from terse alt.rock to slinky funk shuffles, the results mostly resemble the work of the grunge godfather Bob Mould in their harnessing of dour sentiments to catchy melodies, nowhere better than on the disgruntled "Jim's Problem": "They tell me that I'm free/ I want to look just like they look on TV... Everyone loves a winner/ Why can't it be me?"

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