August 1999

Moby - Play
Rave New World/V2 63881-27049-2
Released: 1999

by Todd Warnke

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]In the electronica, ambient and hip-hop worlds, you live and die by the samples you choose. In the past, Moby (born Richard Melville Hall, a direct descendent of that Melville, hence the Moby moniker) has chosen both well and poorly. Here he is dead solid perfect. Even more, the samples from field recordings made in the ‘20s and ‘30s in songs such as "Honey, Find my Baby," "Why does my heart feel so bad?," "Run on," and especially "Natural Blues" have such depth of soul and authenticity that if Moby were less than perfect with the surrounding music and sonic layering the results would implode. They don’t.

"Honey," which opens the album, takes a basic field holler and builds layers of piano, drums, bass and scratches over top. The beat commands obedience, and by the time the guitar break kicks in, if your booty ain’t shaking, the autopsy isn’t required. "Find my Baby," with its proto-blues shout, is a snakey, guitar-bass-and-scratch masterpiece. With a synthesized string backdrop, sizzling female coda and elastic guitar break, it fuses the ‘30s and the ‘90s into a seamless, timeless whole. But "Natural Blues" takes everything to an even higher level of perfection. With its plaintive cry, "Oh Lordy now, troubles so hard. Don’t nobody know my troubles but God," it cuts straight to the soul.

The 100% Moby tracks are superb as well. From the tape-looped "Porcelain" to the dreamy "Down Slow" and the rave-driven "7," Moby varies the mood, intensity and textures, but never the skill. The beats are dead center, the layers precise and the vocals intense.

Sonically the disc is the perfect example of modern studio craft. OK, the album is not the sound of acoustic instruments in real space, although when real instruments in real time are employed, such as in opening to "Everloving," the sound is rich, warm and real. It is a collage of sounds, electronic and acoustic instruments and samples that have been carefully, purposefully and exactly assembled. The bass will test the depth, speed and tonal accuracy of any sub, while the various layers will stress the resolution of the rest of your gear. Some of the field samples sound like they were recorded yesterday, while others have an enhanced crackle and age. But I have no doubt that what you hear is exactly what Moby wanted you to hear, which means, yes, a perfect recording even if not perfect sound.

So then, with the year just edging past the midway point, Play is the early favorite for my rock disc of the year.