Monday, March 18, 2019

100 Albums: "Play" by Moby

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Moby
Title: Play
Released: 1999
Genre: alt-rock but also techno and somehow kind of archival?


Alt-rock and grunge were on the wane in the late 90s, having been displaced by nü-metal, rap-rock, and the boy-band revival. Into that melange, enter Moby, a tiny bald vegan from New York whose song Natural Blues was essentially an EDM-lite remix of a Depression-era Mississippi Delta song by Vera Hall. So when that creeped into radio playlists, my cohort's collective reaction was "Wait, what the hell was that? Play it again!"

Though Play felt like a bolt from the blue, Moby had been working in music for nearly two decades. He'd started in the early 80s playing guitar for a hardcore punk band called the Vatican Commandos and then had a career as a DJ and techno artist through the late 80s and early 90s. In the mid-90s he'd started blending those sensibilities, putting out Everything Is Wrong, which has the vibe and tempo (mostly) of an alt-rock album but whose songs are largely structured like EDM songs and sung by guests vocalists. Several of those had found their way onto film--notably God Moving Over The Face Of The Water, which is prominently featured in the finale of Michael Mann's crime drama Heat.

Play takes those same musical sensibilities but adds a new gimmick: several tracks feature vocals sampled from delta blues songs. Trouble So Hard becomes Natural BluesJoe Lee's Rock becomes Find My Baby. Moby himself sings on a few, notably the singles Porcelain and Southside, the latter of which featured Gwen Stefani on both the single re-mix and music video (honestly, I prefer the non-Gwen version, but your mileage may vary). Overall, it's an odd duck of an album. It absolutely should not work, but it does work and it's kind of amazing. Moby's process at this point was to just record 150 songs in his apartment and then pick his favorite 17 or 18 to make the record. It's mostly driven by piano and slide guitar over looped drums. There are a half dozen lead vocalists. The liner notes contain essays about veganism, prison reform, and fundamentalism. It includes progressive dance (Bodyrock), gospel (Run On), spoken word (The Sky Is Broken), ambient instrumental (Inside), alt-rock (Southside), in addition to the delta blues remixes (Natural BluesFind My BabyHoney).

It is, in short, Moby being Moby. This is the man who, as a successful musician, opened a tea store in New York City where he would occasionally buss tables. He's just a guy who found a way to make a living doing what he loves, and his albums are always just doing whatever he's interested in, and for a while there, whatever he was interested in happened to be very popular.

Further Listening: If not for my one-album-per-artist rule, Everything Is Wrong would be on this list for sure. Animal Rights, which fell between EiW and Play, is an interesting mix of lo-fi punk and ambient piano that just doesn't quite work. I do like 18, the follow-up to Play, but it doesn't break any new ground. It feels very much like a re-tread of the Play formula.

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