Moby: Play

Before dubious acts like The Prodigy put a face to electronic music, Orbital was playing huge venues worldwide on the basis of music alone. Brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll were early ambient-techno pioneers, composing music that worked on several levels, and the classic Orbital 2 still resonates as chill-out-room ambience, an example of programming virtuosity, and drug fodder. But as the worlds of dance music and pop music began to intersect, Orbital faltered: How could the pair develop without changing the nature of its music? Orbital's decision was to tone down the intellectualism in favor of fun and, for the most part, the technique makes The Middle Of Nowhere, Orbital's first album since 1996, pretty lively. But while it's dressed up with goofy embellishments, the album really has nowhere to go. The eight long tracks and trippy soundbites seem out of place now that dance music is taking a turn back to the simple, serious, and spare, and considering that audiences are even more attuned to electronic music these days, Orbital ought to discard the crowd-pleasing clichés and start taking some real risks. Moby, too, was one of techno's first stars—like Orbital, he's always been a top-draw live act—but he was also one of the first to realize the limitations of electronic music. After several years spent creating rave anthems, Moby made a giant leap forward with his 1995 album Everything Is Wrong, a diverse collection of dance music and hypnotic, minimalist keyboard pieces. That record woke a lot of people up to the fact that some of the most rewarding music was being made with machines, but just as the electronica boom began in earnest, Moby retreated. His next two albums alienated many fans while proving his willingness to take risks: Animal Rights alternated guitar-heavy, pseudo-punk tracks with more ambient pieces, while I Like To Score was a collection of hypothetical soundtrack music. With the new Play, however, Moby renews his trailblazing efforts without abandoning his dance-floor roots. About half of Play is composed of house and hip-hop-modeled numbers, adorned with slide and acoustic guitars, pianos, and mournful vocals sampled from old field recordings. From Jon Spencer to Beck to Everlast, the (white) blues are pretty trendy, but Moby's music lacks the irritating irony that occasionally plagues the subgenre. Some of it is closer in spirit and emotion to Everlast's organic hybrid, but Moby isn't afraid to layer mushy synths atop the moody minor chords. Adding to Play's depth is Moby's refusal to stick to one style: The rest of the album features ultra-catchy, unabashedly poppy songs like the infectious "South Side"—sure to be a huge hit—as well as more standard dance tracks like "Machete." In most cases, Moby adds his own vocals, making Play his most accessible, mature work to date. Who says electronic music doesn't have a soul?

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