By Douglas Wolk
This isn't Norman Cook's first song-based album, not by a long shot. As Fatboy Slim, he finessed the idea of dance track as pop song-cum-loop, isolating the best moments of crate-dug tracks and repeating them until he hammered them into hooks; as Beats International, he roped in a crowd of vocalists to sing their own songs and a few covers and some weird but fun throwaways; in the mid-1980s, he was the bassist in the Housemartins, who were a straight-up guitar-pop band with the occasional a cappella curveball.
And now he's the central figure of the BPA, or Brighton Port Authority-- a catchall for stuff Cook does with various vocalists. They have a confusing fictional backstory involving recently rediscovered tapes from the 70s, but that doesn't even make sense: you can hear the software in every chopped-and-pasted rifflet on the record. (The count-ins at the beginning of most songs are a gag.) They're also the most referential pop act this side of Girl Talk-- although, beyond the perplexing covers that bookend their debut album, they refer to modes more than to particular songs. Every synth setting and drum sound and vocal technique on I Think We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat is a pastiche of a sort of thing you've heard before.
See, for instance, "Should I Stay or Should I Blow", whose guest is house producer Ashley Beedle. It isn't a variation on the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" (or Thee Stash's "Should I Suck or Should I Blow"); instead, it's some kind of Frankensteined-together cybernetic rocksteady creature. Its construction couldn't be simpler: a spy-surf guitar sample (or quasi-sample) that serves as its intro and bridge, a two-bar cut-and-paste job of a riff that repeats for the entire remainder of the song (with some wobbling Jamaican organ slapped on to underscore the refrain), two verses, three choruses, and a faux shortwave-radio solo. The chorus-- "Every day it's yeah yeah yeah/ And every night it's no no no"-- is lifted from a nonexistent Jimmy Cliff record. The whole thing sounds like a party if you hear it in the background, and crumbles into flakes the moment you start paying attention.
One thing an album with a different singer on every track can do is make points about singing voices and what they can mean. (See, for instance, Stephin Merritt's 6ths' albums.) Bigger Boat mostly blows that opportunity-- its lesser-known singers mostly deliver by-the-numbers Britpop technique. Justin Robertson's "Island" sounds like the David Bowie of the 90s forgetting the words and the tune to "'Heroes'"; Jamie T's "Local Town" sounds like a three-sheets-to-the-wind John Lydon forgetting the words, but not the tune, to a medley of PiL's greatest hits. Cook gets it very right a few times, though: "Spade", the album's other Jamaican-inspired track, presents Martha Wainwright with a phased and sparkling approximation of mid-70s lovers rock, and she responds by alternately gliding over the rhythm like a Studio One pro and clipping her phrasing to try to synch up with its twitchy reggae guitar. And "Toe Jam", the single from last year with the boobs 'n' black bars video and David Byrne high on life and Dizzee Rascal cramming as many syllables as he can into the middle eight, is a geeky-and-proud bonbon.
Cook knows how to sequence songs to work a crowd, and Bigger Boat flows like a mofo all the way to its floor-clearing closer, a cover of Nick Lowe's "So It Goes" rendered by Olly Hite as the slinky come-on it emphatically isn't. But the other cover here-- the Monochrome Set's "He's Frank", intoned by Iggy Pop-- exemplifies what's frustrating about the BPA. The original version of the song is one of the greatest post-punk multi-guitar cockfights, so Cook waggishly boils its cross-talk down to a dopey riff; the Monochrome Set's Bid sang it as a dry-witted portrait of a rentboy who's a little bit past his sell-by date, and Iggy sings it as an amalgamation of odd phrases that don't mean anything in particular. (It doesn't help that he blows some of the lyrics: The first line of the song is "he's got secular joy," not "circular.") It's catchy; it's got a good little beat. But, like too much of the album, there's something not just dumb but dumbed down about it.