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Playing with Fire

The RFT interviews sampler extraordinaire Moby

The suspicion has always been that there's only one faceless lady who belts out the ubiquitous "Woo-hoo!" and "Baaayaaaybee!" refrains on house and techno tracks — one over-the-top queenie in a tight red dress, pumped up on champagne and cocaine who makes the rounds of the various studios. You can hear her all the way back on some of the first Chicago house tracks, and over the course of her career she hasn't altered her approach or uncovered much nuance. She's just there, a human exclamation point reflecting the hormonal enthusiasm and unbridled liberty of the 3 a.m. dance floor.

Over time, the lady's lost her power — if she really ever had any in the first place (she claimed to on Snap's Jock Jam hit when she bellowed, "I've got the power!"). Relentless repetition does that to a voice, so it doesn't help that in the world of electronica, which constantly struggles to reveal true life human emotion in the computer-generated, dry-as-a-bone tones, such an empty voice still reigns supreme. It's a voice, but it's lost all meaning, as have the adrenaline-drenched screams of anger embedded in the music of both the Prodigy and the Lo Fidelity All Stars.

Where's the tenderness? Where's the uncertainty, the fear, the sorrow, the hope? It's inside Play, the new CD by electronic-music revolutionary Moby, who has steered the genre — techno, electronica, whatever you wanna call it — in a fascinating new direction with the recording. On it, Moby samples human voices from the past — no great revolution there. But rather than cut and paste the usual wink-wink smirking snippets, he's collected old-time gospel recordings — most from the '40s and '50s, culled from the collection of folk archivist Alan Lomax — and created swirling new musical contexts for them.

The result is a tiny epiphany (though a few have created equally inspired amalgams before) that, because of its critical and commercial success, could foreshadow a new kind of pop music. "Once I realized there was this wealth of a cappella African-American music from the early 20th century," says Moby on the phone during his tour, which stops in St. Louis this week, "I started tracking it down. I've always loved old blues and gospel and field hollers, but this was the first record where I realized that I could actually sample these vocals and write songs based around them."

Moby samples Bessie Jones, the Shining Light Gospel Choir, Vera Hall, Bill Landford and the Landfordaires, as well as old-school rappers Spoonie Gee and the Treacherous Three (on the hit single "Bodyrock"). A far cry from the dance-floor diva belting out manufactured excitement, Moby's "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?" is a flood of human emotion — there is no more consuming sound than a voice obsessed with the spirit. Same goes for "Natural Blues," which features Hall crooning, "Don't nobody know my troubles with God." In the same way in which colors are affected by different types of light, Moby's success is the result of a recontextualization of sounds that makes the antiquated sound like the future.

Of course, an inspired sample can't save a wack backdrop, and Moby is one of the most inspired melodicists and beat-creators around — he's been making techno for more than a decade. On Play, he organizes a wash of disparate sounds and something fresh emerges; old slide-guitar quotes underline gospel harmonies while fancy, loose beats — the new-school kind — keep a groove. Take the highlight, "Run On." The piece opens with a simple two-chord piano bounce that serves as its melody. It sets an organic tone, and then Bill Landford & the Landfordaires appear as if out of a mist and enter the melody with golden harmony — Landford had a gentle, pleading voice. It's a seamless entry, and Moby, wisely and respectfully, introduces a quiet beat that acts as a rudder. He then adds texture, none of it bombastic or jarring, in the form of an almost subharmonic bass tone, a few token scratches, a string section and — and here's Moby's genius at work — a slide guitar that adds a tiny exclamation to the piece. The end is pure crescendo as the entirety — including the Landfordaires sample — climaxes, and Moby adds heavier percussion to support it all. It's gorgeous, wonderfully reverent to the original emotion yet somehow brand-new.

Like the whole of Play, "Run On" is a cut-and-paste mishmash, but it's not at all clunky or awkward; Moby's supreme gift is the ability to know both when to quit and when to squeeze in one more curious layer. Nor is it particularly cutting-edge. Play's a pop album with some electronic beats rather than the reverse.

Since he arrived on the techno scene in 1991 with the classic "Go," which spliced the Twin Peaks melody and placed it within a beat-infested context, Moby has always been both near the center of the movement and on its fringes. The early-'90s explosion was predominantly Eurocentric, and the Connecticut-born artist, a great-great-grandnephew of Moby Dick author Herman Melville (hence his nickname), was one of the lone Yanks making waves. He's also played with genres and experimented with sounds unlike most in the cloistered, closed-minded community; with roots in the New York City hardcore-punk scene — he got his start playing in bands in the early '80s — he's never attempted to erase his past or alter his résumé and has never worn genre-blinders. He says, "I've always been doing pretty much the same thing. Even now, my musical life isn't all that different than it was in 1982 — which is, I just make music. In the early '80s I played in a hardcore band (he revisited these roots, to a certain extent, on his uneven 1996 album Animal Rights) and a new-wave band, and we put out a couple vanity pressings, and very small singles, but I was never exclusively involved in any one of those scenes. Even when I was playing guitar in a hardcore-punk band, I still loved hip-hop and loved electronic music and classical music, etc. In the mid-'80s, I had a small studio, had a four-track and a small studio with a synthesizer, and spent all my time making music by myself. And then essentially what happened in the early '90s was, I kept doing the same thing but I had a vehicle to actually release some of the music I was making."

For Play, after the initial idea took shape in his imagination, he had to gain the approval and support of the publishers of the original gospel recordings. "The irony is," he says, "in the past I haven't been very diligent about clearing samples. Sometimes I've sampled things and not gotten the legal permission to do so. But with this record, with my lawyer we cleared all the samples, and it turns out we probably didn't have to because mostly on the original vocals, there were never contracts signed for them. They were recorded such a long time ago that, for many of them, contracts were never issued. So a lot of this material is public domain. So, ironically, I actually paid for it all, and the people at Atlantic Records were perfectly happy for me to pay them for using these samples and never told me that I didn't have to pay them."

Play is gaining nearly universal critical praise, and, even more impressive, the first single, "Bodyrock" (which doesn't feature any gospel samples but does include a fantastic snippet of the Treacherous Three's "Love Rap") is becoming a minor hit, a fact that's manifesting itself in curious ways for the reserved, soft-spoken Moby: "It's disconcerting — they were using it in this television commercial for the show Dharma & Greg, and I was at a friend's house and they had the TV on, and all of the sudden "Bodyrock" came out of the TV. And at first it seemed perfectly normal; I was like, "Oh, this is my song, I'm used to listening to it.' But then I thought, "But wait. It's a different context.'

"Thus far in my professional life," he continues, "the most disconcerting example of that was, there was a figure skater in the last Olympics who used my version of the James Bond theme. And I heard it and a friend of mine said, "You know that the viewing audience for this is somewhere just shy of a billion people.' It's very strange to think of a thousand million people listening to something that essentially I made in my bedroom."

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