In the three years since Play was released and slowly took over the sonic universe, Moby has emerged as arguably the definitive pop musician of the era. He s the Prince of the electronica age a diminutive, eccentric, Christian dance-music hero, a multithreat talent and bedroom/home-studio sound scientist obsessively and single-handedly realizing the majestic music in his mind. And, in the process, he s also emerged as one of the most decent, most humane, and most compelling celebrities the culture industry has churned up. (As near as I can tell, Moby is the only person ever featured on MTV Cribs whose home isn t crassly ostentatious and actually contains books.)
A product of his mix-and-match era, Moby is still a remarkably catholic musician, assimilating virtually every strand of pop punk, hip hop, blues, gospel, soul, disco, traditional techno into his records. But the man s truest gift is for taking the spiritualism that undergirds disco and other dance music (last night a DJ saved my life) and making them explicit. And so, after the rave epiphanies of Everything Is Wrong and the willful iconoclasm of Animal Rights, the blues-and-gospel-sampling Play was his genius move an electronica gospel album in which vintage vocals and techno beats joined forces and reached for the heavens.
18 continues in this vein, perhaps a bit too much (some tracks sound like Play outtakes), though it s a more modest and more subdued affair. The intense, earnest, and lengthy political and ethical treatises that previously filled liner notes is here reigned in and the album s lead track/first single, We Are All Made of Stars, assuages any concern that his newfound fame has gone to his head. A philosophical sequel to David Bowie s Heroes, it s the sound of Moby offering a communal new-wave hug to all his listeners.
But after that left turn, Moby gets back to what made Play such a bust-out hit. In This World brims with intense gospel-style, sampled vocals (first line: Lordy, don t leave me all by myself ) over a track consisting of disco/hip-hop beats, stately piano chords, and a symphonic overlap. This is followed by In My Heart, in which a member of the Shining Light Gospel Choir (which also made an appearance on Play) reaches for pure vocal ecstasy amid a similar sonic arrangement. The greatest moments on both songs come when the vocals transcend content into pure sound, and Moby pushes the tracks to meet the challenge. It s all extremely familiar, but the formula is all his (though Fatboy Slim might claim authorship of the style for his reworking of Praise You ) and it still works.
But for most of the remainder of the album Moby changes it up. The Great Escape is a frail, lovely chamber ballad featuring vocals from Azure Ray, while Sinead O Connor makes an unexpected appearance on Harbour. Moby takes the vocals himself (as he does on several songs) for an exaggerated report from the celebrity wars on Extreme Ways. And Jam For the Ladies is a decent idea turned into a merely serviceable techno/hip-hop jam. The presence of MC Lyte is always welcome, but Angie Stone s opening One things f sho/Moby got soul must be the low point of the man s career.
In all, 18 is a solid retread and consolidation of what Moby has done before but a minor disappointment from a major artist. In contrast to Play, the emotional palette here is more mournful and moody than ecstatic, with the album s penultimate track, Rafters, the only time Moby reaches for the delirious, uptempo pleasure that you ll find on Play and Everything Is Wrong. Chris Herrington
Rings Around the World
Super Furry Animals
(XL Recordings/Beggars Banquet)
Super Furry Animals fifth album mixes the band s signature kaleidoscope of sounds with a U2-sized social conscience and a promise to turn all the hate in the world into a mockingbird and let it fly away. Such a blend is nothing new: In 2000, the band released Mwng, which was not only a startling act of millennial anticolonialism but also the highest-debuting Welsh-language album in British history. Still, with Rings SFA tip the scales toward social commentary, and the result is a mostly sluggish album with a deficit of real insight.
Lyrically, songs like No Sympathy and Receptacle for the Respectable are blustery and condescending, not to mention sadly dated. No one really needs a song about Lewinskygate, but Presidential Suite induces cringes with its first couplet: Monica and naughty Billy/Got together something silly. This scandal was old news when Rings was released in Britain last July, and just eight months later, with a Republican president and a new world disorder, it is all but forgotten.
Presidential Suite follows the album s first single, Juxtapozed With U, a standout track. With its memorable cheese-lounge chorus, Juxtapozed With U is high kitsch: fun, off-kilter, spacey, and original. It s what SFA do best, and it s how they will someday leave their mark on pop culture once they outlive this disappointment. Stephen Deusner
Finally, for better or worse, rock is the new rock again (the recent same-night/same-network phenomenon of the White Stripes and Clinic appearing on late-night talk shows, the growing unpopularity of baggy clothing, etc.) and individualistic singer-songwriters can shed the pressure of quiet being the new loud and concentrate on their craft. Kyle Field, aka Little Wings, concentrates enough on the craft that I am willing to overlook that this is indeed not a concept album about extremely flammable pajamas and appreciate the strip-mall angst and heartbreak that calmly rises from Wonderue.
Field drops a bomb with the third track, a paean to the golden age of waterproof Walkmans and factory cassettes, so skip the first two tracks of y allternative fake country for Shredder Sequel, a continued tale of a has-been skater who has Had enough/ Concrete s unkind, he sadly sighs/Behind the wheel of his hatchback he cries. From that point on, Wonderue shows its love of both Harry Nilsson at his most minimal and Will Oldham (Palace) at his most on. In fact, if Oldham were struggling in California instead of howling from the comforts of deep pockets and marble-floored hotel lobbies, he would make a nice sonic twin to the Little Wings sound. The whole approach to songwriting (and instrumental backdrop) on Wonderue (the third in a loosely penned Wonder trilogy) owes more to the West Coast, daydream-on-the-couch aura of Buffalo Springfield, Tim Hardin, Gene Clark, or Bread than it does to anything on the Bloodshot Records roster. It wouldn t bother me to see emo fans snatching America records out of the dollar bins, and if whatever people are calling emo were actually this emotional, or this good, then life might be a tad less irritating. n Andrew Earles