The Beautiful South; Fatboy Slim

Beautiful South: Painting It Red (Ark 21) / Fatboy Slim: Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Astralwerks)

When the Housemartins disbanded in 1988 -- killing off what was, hands down, the finest Christian Marxist folk-funk-pop-soul protest band to come out of England ever -- its members took divergent (and very British) paths toward tweaking American R&B. For lead singer Paul Heaton's act, the Beautiful South, the key was wit, female vocals, and a Stax-lite groove; throughout the '90s, Heaton concocted a series of albums that, though often socially didactic, got over on sheer pop smarts.

While the 1995 compilation Carry on Up the Charts remains the essential clearinghouse for Heaton's blue-eyed meditations on sex, politics, and God (in that order), Painting It Red is a welcome improvement from the scornful chastisements of last year's Quench. It's the first album in which Heaton's lyrics approach something like spirituality -- love as fun instead of love as compromise, related through the laid-back soul of "Just Checkin'" and "You Can Call Me Leisure," the balladeering of "Masculine Eclipse," and the sweet come-on of "10,000 Feet," which posits romance as a plane crash you just can't resist.

For Fatboy Slim (né Housemartins bassist Norman Cook), the path was simpler and funkier: Big Beat whomp and self-aggrandizement like "Fatboy Slim is fucking in heaven," repeated about 10 zillion times (on "In Heaven"). Apart from his halftime-show classic "The Rockafeller Skank," "In Heaven" was the hallmark of '98's You've Come a Long Way, Baby, and the whole point of the album. The song featured hooks-a-go-go, piled up so boldly that even the techno-we-won't-go crowd had to get behind them. But where Heaton found soul in God, on Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars(or, if you like, Up in the Air) Fatboy Slim casts about for something to believe in, with nary a hook to anchor his depressive, dry, and just plain lazy grab bag of go-nowhere car chase soundtracks. The lust of the music is gone -- even Jim Morrison's guest vocals don't add much since, apart from Bauhaus fans, few people find corpses sexy. As for fun, the closest Halfway comes to that is "Love Life," when Macy Gray's voice leaps out like a jack-in-the-box to liven up the mess. Even then, here's what she's spewing: "I wanna F ya! I wanna F ya!" Oh, Christ.


Sample of The Beautiful South's "10,000 Feet," from the CD Painting It Red. Click the "play" icon in the control console below.

<p align="center"> If your browser doesn't display a control console, <A HREF=""> download the MP3 file</A> to be played by a separate application. </p>

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