Like millions of other people around the world, I first found and fell in love with the music of Moby thanks to his fifth studio album, Play. Fueled by Moby’s having licensed all of the tracks for use in films, television shows or commercials – a move that allowed people to hear his music that otherwise wouldn’t, as electronic dance music at the time wasn’t Top 40 radio fodder – the album ended up scoring an unprecedented (for an electronica album, anyways) nine hit singles. So, really, how could I have avoided it?
Play was brilliant.
The man behind the music though, at least from the small bits I’d see of him on television, didn’t quite match the seductive and polished sounds. From this tiny little bald-headed man came these swirling sounds and samples that electrified my ears and imaginations? How is that possible?
Album after album, though, I listened to the little man and the big music he would create. Although, sometimes the music was small such as 2009’s Wait for Me. After Play, though, it didn’t matter.
I would listen to it all.
And all, coincidentally, is what’s on my mind today as I write this – all of these songs and my questions about the little man who crafted them has come full circle in a way with Moby’s latest release, Porcelain: A Memoir. That’s right. Moby, who turns out to be a distant relative of Herman Melville, tried his hand at writing his own memoir that captures his early years right up until the point where I and many others first heard of his music or his name, the release of Play.
As an added bonus, he even painstakingly put together a soundtrack to the book consisting of a nice selection of his own songs on one disc. More interestingly, there’s a collection of tunes that he mixed into his own DJ sets during the early years in the industry that the book covers, as well as songs that remind him of New York itself, where he lived at the time.
As great – and I do think it is great, by the way – as the book is, I’m going to focus for a little while on the soundtrack. The music is what brought me to admire Moby in the first place, and so music is where I begin. (I’ll reserve the right to do a companion piece about the book.)
Music from Porcelain is a release comprised of two discs: one featuring a nice compendium of tracks encompassing the earliest stages of Moby’s career through lean years that preceded success, and a handful of tracks from his monstrously successful album Play, which more or less coincides with the path the memoir this album is meant to accompany, travels.
Beginning with the song “Mobility,” the album sets out letting you know – with a bit of 20/20 hindsight – that all of the components that would come together into the perfect storm of success were present right from the get-go. In this one tune, you’ve got a simple, yet solidly constructed backbeat, and then on top of that is overlaid sonic swirls and samples which give the entire song just a feel of something lying much deeper beneath the surface than the casual listener might discover.
Moby’s music makes you want to listen to it again because it’s constructed so smartly that it makes listeners feel like they can understand something both about themselves as well as the artist, by simply enjoying the song and listening to it with all of their attention. Plus, it’s pretty damn fun to dance to.
From there, we are taken through a trip down memory lane with Moby as we get “Go (Woodtick Mix),” “Ah Ah,” “Next Is the E,” “Rock the House,” “Thousand,” “Feeling So Real,” and the sublime “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” (which would echo the music Moby happens to be focusing on now in 2016 with his release of Long Ambients 1: Calm. Sleep.).
I think it’s at this point in the album that one discovers there is more to Moby than just a sophisticated sense of how to make dozens, hundreds or thousands of people move to the rhythms he’s creating electronically – he’s a musician that just happens to use those as his instruments.
He’s an artist.
Following “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” is the nice little post-punk groove of “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” (Mission of Burma cover). Just when you think you know where his sound seems to be evolving, your ears are then tossed the molasses-sweet southern groove of “Natural Blues.”
From this one song you can sense the tidal wave of the tracks to follow on both this compilation and the actual album it kicks off, Play.
All in all, despite this being (at heart) nothing more or less than another “Greatest Hits” of Moby as pertains to the period of time he covers in the book of the same name, this collection still works for me and should work for any fans of Moby in its own right. Instead of the expected, what Moby has given us here is a nice sonic road map into his own life and his growth and belief in his own musicianship.
Then, of course, he gives us more on the second disc.
Here we find not a single song by Moby but instead songs that either influenced him as an artist, were constantly around him on the airwaves of New York while he was a struggling homeless artist, or provided some of the energy into his burgeoning career as he weaved them into his DJ sets. Each of these tracks in some way manage to evoke the feeling of New York – and to a larger extent dance culture – in fascinating ways. Looking at Moby, for instance, both then and now, you might not immediately look at him and see someone that would eagerly spin tracks by Raze, Big Daddy Kane, or Dream Frequency – but here they are.
Not only that but after listening to them all together, you get a sense of “here they belong” as the sum of the influences definitively making the musician. One listen to Raze’s “Break 4 Love” and you can see the basic, yet perfect beat that surrenders to the drawl of the vocals. Listen to this song and then listen to “Why Does My Heart Feel So Sad?” and you can see the path from A to B without too much difficulty.
Had I never had the chance to read the book that this is basically a soundtrack to, I can say with certainty that it would have given me a nice solid glimpse into what makes Moby, well, Moby. Sure the words give a broader context to things, doubly so as they come from Moby himself, but these songs do a serviceable job on their own. Taken together in consideration with not only what songs are on these CDs but, especially on the second album, the tracks and the order they are presented in?
It’s all there.
Without any reservation I highly recommend this release to those casually interested in seeing what all the fuss was about if you’re a bit too young to remember Moby dominating the airwaves as much as he did, or if you’re a fan of the man and his music as I was and just wanted a bit more of a context to appreciate it all the more.