By David Browne
Updated November 10, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Remarkable as Play is, Moby wasn’t the first to recast old-school African-American vocal samples with new, techno-rooted backing tracks. Norman Cook, a.k.a. Fatboy Slim, wasn’t the first either, but his irresistible 1998 single ”Praise You” both predated and seemed to inspire Play. Now the platinum-certified Cook must top himself and make us forget about Moby. That spectre looms over Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, in which he attempts to add new spins to the big beat he introduced to the masses.

To solve his dilemma, Cook has turned to the vintage R&B he loves. An assortment of sampled or live funk-soul brothers, from Bootsy Collins to the more obscure Roland Clark, are wed to club-ready tracks that are grittier, loopier, and more driving than much of 1998’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. ”Love Life,” featuring an original vocal by Macy Gray, is a squalid strut. But the ”gutter” Cook aims for — a blaxploitation soundtrack for the new century — also keeps the music earthbound. Melodically repetitive, the songs only intermittently approach the energizing highs of earlier Fatboy cuts. His use of a Jim Morrison snippet on the surprisingly one-dimensional ”Sunset (Bird of Prey)” is also problematic: The instant recognizability of the Lizard King’s baritone detracts from Cook’s ability to make inherently inorganic music feel organic and very alive.

The disc achieves liftoff only on its last two cuts. Built around a sample from an old Bill Withers track, ”Demons” is a hypnotic piece of electronic gospel that makes the best of Gray’s munchkin-on-Ecstasy voice, and the panoramic synth swells of ”Song for Shelter” return the majestic sweep to his music. With them, Cook finally reaches the stars. But as its title portends, much of the album stalls halfway there. B-