In former Housemartin Norman Cook's career as dance music's most successful exponent, Fatboy Slim, he's never come this close to acknowledging his guitar-toting past. Maybe it's a result of his turning 40 or nearly splitting with his wife, or of what he's recognized as the stagnant state of dance and DJ culture, but Palookaville sounds like a guy trying to recover a bygone structure and stability--in this case, authentic songs and lyrics with meaning outside the club.
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He hasn't quite found his way back. "Slash Dot Dash" and "Wonderful Night" are soulful, retro-rocking pieces of nonsense that are fun as they spin, forgettable afterward. Ditto for Bootsy Collins' guest turn on "The Joker," a cute idea that feels so '90s now. And Cook seems no longer challenged by straight electronica: The desultory opener "Don't Let the Man" simply slips funky drumming beneath the hippie anthem "Signs," a trick that was beneath him even back in his Beats International days. The best songs on Palookaville still belong to others, notably John and Beverley Martyn's "Primrose Hill," the 1970 jazz-folk gem underpinning the bittersweet "North West Three." But such moments of beauty and humanity keep Palookaville--to paraphrase Cook's last album title--closer to the stars than the gutter.