We're going back in time to 1996. The Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys, the Fugees, and Oasis — a gritty equivalent of sandpaper being wedged in our ears through the magic of radio, at a time when we still listened to the radio. It was enough to make anyone with tastes beyond that of mainstream pop schlock turn to a blinding rage, ready to scream even if a chipmunk looks at you the wrong way. (And it will.) I'll bet Moby was one of those people. You know Moby, right? He's that guy with the shaven head that makes all that piano-laden electronic music with plenty of samples from old records! No, I said Moby, not Fatboy Slim, though they both do it well. In 1996, Moby released "Animal Rights", a contradiction to his thumping beats and synthesized tunes. It was a mass of screaming over punk rock, louder than anything he had ever done and unlike most things he would ever do again. In 1996, Moby was screaming, contrary to everything that was making radio listeners shuffle in their Air Jordan XIIs. But his gimmick failed him; the album was unpopular with Moby fans, and it didn't latch onto a different audience. Screaming didn't work well in 1996, either from Moby or the chipmunk harassers. Okay, that's probably not precisely the reason why Moby was yelling, but it's an interesting story. Nevertheless, in 1999, Moby returned a changed man with "Play", a stretch back to his roots and a route to ascension in popularity.
Recorded entirely in his apartment, Moby's "Play" isn't a technical marvel by any means, relying on catchy hooks from old gospel songs to lure in the listener. The album begins with Honey, which pulls its primary vocal sample from "Sometimes", a 1960 recording by gospel/folk artist Bessie Jones. Backed by a repeated piano riff and some funky guitar use (instruments of choice for Play), it repeats the lyrics: "Get my honey come back sometimes / I wanna rap like that sometimes / I get a hump in my back sometimes / I'm going over here, sometimes". Completed with country twangs and DJ scratches, Honey is a fun way to start off with its infectious sound, and it sets the tone for the rest of the album. Find My Baby follows the same formula, pulling from Boy Blue's "Joe Lee's Rock" for its main hook. The backing instrumentation is synthesized orchestration and Southern acoustic guitar, but the repeated one liner throughout the song doesn't make this one particularly notable.
Porcelain takes a different route: it's far more chilled, and it features Moby himself on vocals telling of the after-effects of a sad breakup. Utilizing some reversed strings, this tune has become one of the staples of the album, easily recognizable within the first two seconds. It's a definite Moby classic. Not so much of a classic? Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad. I think my heart's feeling a bit bad because this is yet another piano-based song with an accompanying drum machine and, of course, a dull voice sample from "He'll Roll Your Burdens Away" by the Banks Brothers back in 1963. He tries to mix things up with a two-second chanting of a female church crooner but to little avail. It's a bit depressing, and you'll probably want to skip this one over, especially if the first two tracks didn't pique your interest.
Moby steps up to the mic again in South Side, whose single version featured guest singer Gwen Stefani from No Doubt, long before she branched off into a solo career singing about bananas and their fecal quality. Even though she was supposed to appear on the album version as well, reported "production" issues caused her to be shut out. Instead, Moby uses this opportunity to absolutely rock out with some sweet guitar work. This was arguably his most successful of singles from Play, and rightfully so: it's the most mainstream song here, exuding an upbeat pop-rock sound (even if its lyrics are about children's desensitization to violence) and fitting well on radio playlists. This overwhelming groove is too much for us, though, so the misleadingly-titled Rushing will slow us down with relaxing synths and ambient tones. I could listen to this during a spa treatment.
Suddenly, without warning, the blend of Moby's patented guitar and a breakbeat, alongside some M.C. lyrics, hits us and makes us want to do the Running Man. The switch is a bit jarring, but it's forgiven because Bodyrock is the coolest and funkiest track on the album. Following this is Natural Blues, which follows a similar vibe as Porcelain, but it features more vocal samples from old times, this time reaching back to 1937 with Vera Hall's "Trouble So Hard". The sample is a bit of an earworm, although I remember the song more for its weird video featuring Moby dying in a retirement home and being taken to Heaven by Christina Ricci as an angel. I think that's how I want to go.
I mentioned earlier that Moby had a brief period in his musical career that endorsed screaming as his form of expression. Like a bad case of dandruff, his need to shout was hard to shake. This has been made quite apparent in Machete, a harder and louder electronic piece that has Moby builds up to pure yelling about darkness and breaking someone with his mind. With a name like Machete, it had better be brutal, unless you're talking about old-fashioned field clearing techniques. But that would be a dull song. Next is 7, a surprisingly short intermission with some more guitar twangs but mostly highly reverbed clacks, like stones being tossed at one another in a hollow quarry. Not much to hear here, as it's just a minute in length. That was a minute I'll never get back.
Moby's used of classic forgotten tunes from yesteryear are back in full force in Run On, this time ducking into the records of the late 1940s with "Run For A Long Time" by Bill Landford & The Landfordaires. Yes, that's actually the name of the group, and yes, it probably took about five seconds to concoct. Moby puts his typical beats and piano in the background, but he seems to have pulled the vast majority of the original song's vocals for this one. It's actually quite catchy, but the most notable part — the lyrics — can't be attributed to Moby. He could've at least whipped out a microphone and performed a cover. Moby likes to sing when he likes, but this album sure doesn't show it. Another brief interlude ensues with Down Slow, an ambient number, that is also easily lost to the mind. It's down slow, for sure.
The bass guitar gets some use in If Things Were Perfect in this downtempo number. Moby DOES provide his own vocals here to deliver some melancholy with lyrics about darkness, frigidity, and emptiness in the streets. He's not one to lift us up (a song about lifting me up comes on a later album). The song is dotted with a sample by Willie Hutch's "Hospital Prelude of Love Theme" that I have heard elsewhere before, that of him sounding as though he's saying "Give me summer..." even though it's just part of a full sentence cut off prematurely. He's actually saying "Give me some of". It's a downer track, and by now, my interest in doing the Running Man has been severely crippled. Everloving starts out sounding rather crude and acoustic, as though it was recorded on an iPhone in a hipster loft, before shifting to studio quality sound and adding backup instrumentation. For some reason, the song temporarily cuts out in one of my headphones for a while, and I don't know why. Everything gets back to normal when the quality transform into something decent about a minute or so in, but this shouldn't be. It ruins what could be a nice track otherwise.
Inside's focus is on ambient pads, but they're not well mastered and just press into your eardrums more than they ought to. It takes half the track before there's any variation, and even then, it's minimal piano use. Inside is a nice song to relax on the beach with, but otherwise, it's pretty simplistic. Reminds me somewhat of Aphex Twin's earlier ambient days. Guitar Flute & String is a prime example of truth in advertising: the only three instruments are the ones mentioned in the title, and delivers another one of Moby's laidback background tunes for an island resort poolside. This album has certainly changed in atmosphere entirely; the earlier tracks were far more ear-catching and funky; these ones are just the opposite.
And whatever reason, the noise in the background hasn't been removed. Take The Sky Is Broken. Is this guy running his air conditioner about ten feet behind him? His depressing words and piano flicks are slightly off-set by the fact that he's swallowing up more energy than a family pet gnawing on an electrical cord. As for the song itself, it's not all that thrilling; Moby is becoming more and more of a beatnik poet than an electronic artist by the minute. We close out with My Weakness, a diffusive hymnal song with all of Moby's string synths playing simultaneously as a choir chimes in now and again, if you can hear them over those strings. It's a powerful way to end, although the ending hardly reflects how the album started.
Play began strongly, albeit formulaic, yet as the album progressed, its vision changed entirely and its cohesiveness was thrown into a nearby New York dumpster. Those who like one half of the album may completely dislike or disregard the other half. Moby tried to show off both sides of his production and composition abilities, both the radio-friendly and the relaxing, and in doing so created a strange mix of the two. When I had this album as a young lad o'er the town, I never even heard the last six or seven tracks because I had lost interest. As an older man o'er my own place, I have gone back and righted the wrongs of the past, only to discover that I wasn't missing much.