When Moby's Play was released in 1999, it was very much the work of a techno bluesman. After following his heart straight into the cutout bins with punk-rock covers and gorgeously out-of-place ambient tracks on 1996's Animal Rights, Moby found himself without a deal or DJ gigs. So he put his melancholy into song as any DJ-cum-musician would: sampled vocals, linear-party jams, and borrowed bass bump, all arranged like one big gentle cheer-me-up after a good cry.
After selling 10 million copies of his little Sunday afternoon masterpiece, Moby, like Eminem, has a different set of issues this time out. Eminem talks about how empty MTV would be without him on his new single, while Moby just bemoans how empty his new celebrity-fueled world is on the deadpan, electro-poppy "We Are All Made Of Stars."
On 18, Moby still prefers that wonderfully oblique feeling of sorrowful, heart-swelling cheer. He enlists Georgia goth girls' Azure Ray to coo in natural fibers on "Great Escape," he lets Freedom Bremmer get all achy-breaky on "At Least We Tried," and Sinead O'Connor gives "Harbour" its chilly, emotional delivery.
It's hard not to see Moby as some kind of poor little rich kid. He's let the geek-turned-rock star side of himself have a fling with Natalie Portman, rubbed elbows with Hollywood, and became techno's first superstar. But now he's gone back to his punk-rock roots to renounce the whole thing and stay grounded (and inspired) in good ol' heartbroken dissatisfaction.
To Moby's credit, 18 is bigger: its blues more wrenching, its melancholy that much more pronounced, and its after-the-cry catharsis that much more satisfying. While he is not above repeating himself ("Jam for the Ladies" is Play's "Bodyrock" with a higher-profile cameo courtesy of MC Lyte), he's also not shy of outdoing himself, either. — Hobey Echlin
(CD, E Squared/Artemis Records)
Steve Earle's mid-'90s renaissance has yielded not only half a dozen beautifully realized albums, it has seen him contributing to a wide range of side projects, producing records for other artists, and so on. His new Sidetracks, rather than being a collection of re-heated leftovers and B-sides, is a document of that fertile creative period.
The first three songs, for instance, were all commissioned for film soundtracks, but all would have fit right in on, say, El Corazón. "Some Dreams," for example, is classic rejuvenated Earle, all about the second chances that interrupt our mature resignation to life's disappointments. On the slower, acoustic "Me and the Eagle" (from The Horse Whisperer), the often literal songwriter uses one of his most poetic images to address a favorite subject, the wandering life. "Johnny Too Bad," not a soundtrack tune but inspired by one (Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come), wouldn't fit in anywhere; a goofy reggae cover, it proves that Earle isn't at home in just any old genre.
He is, however, comfortable covering Nirvana, as demonstrated on "Breed." He also revisits Lowell George and Bob Dylan (turning the familiar melodic chorus of "My Back Pages" into a recitative), but the most exciting cover is of the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today": Using provocative audio samples of Abbie Hoffman (in the musician listings, Hoffman is credited with "Truth"), he and Sheryl Crow make the song politically rousing again, reclaiming the classic tune from the advertising company who stole it to hawk auto financing.
Interspersed are a couple of beautiful instrumentals that were recorded during the sessions for Transcendental Blues. The tracks may not have fit the flow of that album, but here they work just fine. In a context that lets Earle present snapshots instead of paint a whole picture, these performances — like the covers, send-ups, and meditations that surround them — are freshly unearthed treasures. — John DeFore