Surprisingly Bad Electronica

PRODIGY

Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned

(Maverick/XL)

The joke, when Prodigy's Liam Howlett announced the title for his Fat of the Land follow-up somewhere in 2000 or so, and then sat around not doing much of anything except performing some later-scrapped mook-techno tracks at festivals and releasing the ninny-hammer self-parody "Baby's Got a Temper" in 2002, was that he should've called it Always Outmoded, Never Begun. Then "Girls" was released a few months back, startling both the faithful (there were a couple) and those that forgot about 'em (there were more than a couple). Picking up where 1999's breakbeat-techno-hip-hop megamix The Dirtchamber Sessions, Vol. 1 should've left off, "Girls" was a lowered-Eclipse, windows-down banger, an old-skool pop-lock throwback that laughed in the face of phony Eurotrash and dared to suggest that electroclash needed a Cazal-rocking b-boy cardboard throwdown to really make something happen. "Girls" makes Fat of the Land's "Smack My Bitch Up" sound like Boards of Canada, "Firestarter" sound like supermarket music, and the other 11 tracks on Outgunned sound pathetic.

Thing is, the latter doesn't take a lot of doing—so could earlier Prodigy tracks like "3 Kilos," "Music Reach 1/2/3/4," or that one with the Kula Shaker prat. It was probably smart of Howlett to keep Keith and Maxim locked out of the studio, but there's little evidence that the guest vocalists add more than name value. Why muffle Twista under endless layers of phony android punk guitars on "Get Up Get Off"? (Give that man a 150 BPM junglistic hardcore break!) Why does Kool Keith mutter a generic "Back on tour/ 1-2-3" hook on "Wake Up Call" and no more? Who the hell still calls Liam Gallagher?

Most of the beats here are the great- in-theory kind. And usually they're ruined by stupid vox—see also the obnoxious androgyne yowling on the otherwise murderous Stooges-Numan "Action Radar" and "Hotride," which features Juliette Lewis squeaking 5th Dimension's "Up Up and Away" for some reason—or are made incomplete by a dearth of them. (Attention mash-up specialists: Please graft a Ludacris freestyle over the booty-anthem-in-waiting "Memphis Bells.") Damn, seven years later, and Howlett's still not finished.

FATBOY SLIM

Palookaville

(Astralwerks)

Skinny, lumpy, naked people holding a surfboard (not in the right place, either)—nice album cover there, Norman. I'd make a joke about the beach-party breakbeat emperor having no clothes, but it's kind of unfair; this is the first thing he's put out that's actually as numskulled as all his detractors claim he's been from the get-go. Stuff the lager-lout lad/Surge commercial/teen comedy dance-off baggage in the over-your-head compartment for a moment: Way back in the '90s, Fatboy (aka Norman Cook) was pop in a true music- dork way, tying together some surprisingly compatible loose ends—"The Rockafeller Skank," was equal parts John Barry, early-'70s Detroit R&B, and Lord Finesse—in populist enough fashion to catch ears from Mad Ave. to Ibiza to some Midwestern teenage dork's Who-damaged headphones, luring them in with massive gonzo radio singles and then hitting them with well-realized dance-floor jams like "Next to Nothing" or "Acid 8000" or "Song for Shelter."

But his failure in Palookaville is three-fold. One, the Big Dumb Party Jams get stuck in a rut with hooks that don't catch anything; a hyperactive yob barking "slash dot dash dot slash dot com!" ("Slash Dot Dash") or some Grand Funk muppet croaking "mah masochistic bay-bee" ("El Bebe Masoquista") has approximately zero shout-along value. Two, most of the efforts to concoct hits feel like someone else's ideas—the Gorillaz in Albarny snoozer "Put It Back Together"; Olatunji (and Santana and Candido) in "Jin Go Lo Ba"; a distressingly unfunky Bootsy Collins and Steve Miller (no, really, are you kidding me?) in "The Joker." Finally, there's nothing here that resonates as a gimmick-free techno stormer like the "deep cuts" on his previous albums; there's too much space taken up by a misguided stab at utilizing sluggish-sounding "real" musicians for him to let loose with some true club beats. Everybody needs a 303—including Cook, now more than ever.

ORBITAL

The Blue Album

(ATO)

Wait, come back—this isn't another Jay-Z remix. It's Orbital's Last Record Ever, for reals, not a minute too soon, and an album too late: Pack up after 1999's Middle of Nowhere and you have a decade-spanning body of work that's as good an example as any of how great techno can be. Let a clumsy bore like The Altogether slip two years later, and people just shrug and mutter, "Oh, yeah, they're still around." Nor do they shake that album's malaise and go out with a bang. The weightless opener, "Transient," is six minutes of ambient intro without a coda; "Bath Time" and "Easy Serv" are jokey, fluffy little nothings that sound like mean-spirited Orb parodies, and tracks like industrial caricature "What Happens Next" and remainder-bin Dreamcast racing-game electro slog "Tunnel Vision" play it disappointingly rote. It's not a total wash: Sparks' inimitable falsetto adds enough slide- whistle chaos to push the gurning 303 of "Acid Pants" just that further into madness, and "Initiation" imagines Miami Vice in its 73rd season, where Crockett and Tubbs are, I don't know, androids or something. The future ain't what it used to be.

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Fatboy Slim plays the Premier at 7 p.m. Tues., Dec. 7. $20.

 
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