Album Review: Moby – Reprise

Moby – Reprise
(Deutsche Grammophon)

After some years of silence Moby returns to our ears with a collection of old material, that essentially re-makes the originals, except there’s an orchestra and a few new faces behind the microphones. Still, you ask, so what? What, indeed.

It’s an interesting move releasing on the classical label Deutsche Grammophon. You immediately think of Morrissey writing his ‘autobiography’ for Penguin Classics, and wonder if this is some kind of act of smugness or an attempt to show how grown up he is now. Also, he’s just put out Moby Doc, touted as “a powerful surrealist biographical documentary”, directed/edited by Rob Bralverand narrated by Moby, “reflecting on his turbulent personal life and iconic music, from underground punk bands to chart-topping solo artist, and from struggling addict to vegan activist.” Both Davids, Lynch and Bowie, pop up alongside early concert footage, and “a unique blend of re-enactments, interviews, and archival footage”. Ok. Right. Cool.

The media machine has been busy, in the absence of Trump related fake news, and the ‘Moby story’, complete with all the addiction and depression has made headlines again. He’s been on ‘The Late Late Show with James Cordon’ and People Magazine got to write in depth on him. Seems Moby is looking over his shoulder to find his way forward.

If the bio-books ‘Porcelain’ and ‘And Then it Fell Apart’ weren’t enough to join the dots for you on Moby’s life journey and struggles, then this new flick will fill in the gaps and provide a fuller audio-visual context. But, having seen the trailers, I felt completely flat and unimpressed. I know Moby (aka Richard Melville Hall) has spent years dealing with mental health issues, identity, sexuality and his own monster of fame that the ever-hungry and divisive International Music Machine created. But unlike other artists when they mature, Moby just can’t seem to move on. I’m not saying that he has to entirely. His story should be a tale for upcoming artists. However, I do want him to find some peace and return to making something new and creative. Perhaps he can feed off those experiences. Many artists have.

This album, ‘Reprise’ is really a best of, Moby revisiting highlights from his 30-year career. With help from, oddly, the Budapest Art Orchestra, he has tried to ‘re-envision’ some of his most recognisable rave classics and anthems – violins and cellos replace synths and samples. And he’s recruited a very diverse bunch of friends and collaborators – Aussie Indy singer Alice Skye; Tennessee-bred singer/songwriter Amythyst Kiah; actor/singer Apollo Jane; Boston folkies Darlingside; progressive gospel vocalist Deitrick Haddon; soul man Gregory Porter; Jim James (My Morning Jacket); legends Kris Kristofferson and Mark Lanegan; indie ‘music making moon fairy’ Luna Li; vocalist Mindy Jones; the very hip Nataly Dawn (of quirky Youtube duo Pomplamoose); Welsh multi instrumentalist Novo Amor (aka Ali John Meredith-Lace); Holly Brook Hafermann (aka Skylar Grey) and Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. If you ever wanted an impressive line up to create a playlist around, then this is it.

Turns out the idea for all this came when Moby was invited to take part in a classical collaboration/live concert of his music at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with mate Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic back in 2018. So, this is another ‘Go’, pardon the pun. But, sigh, where there was an opportunity to completely reinvent classic tunes like ‘Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?’, ‘Stars’ and ‘Natural Blues’ he’s chosen to dumb them down and re-arrange them for what sounds like a stage musical.

Well before Covid ruined the live music scene, artists were exploiting ways to reinterpret their early works, playing with orchestras, remixing, bringing in guest, getting others to play in their place. And yes the pandemic made everyone turn inward – some to their home studios, some to collaborate in more innovative ways online and in separation. Nick Cave released ‘Idiot Prayer’, a summary of his solo tour project, and he nailed it. What made it work? His honest, sincere and intimate performances, which you can hear on close listens. With just a piano and voice, it makes you feel like you are right there on the stool with him. Bands playing with orchestras can create the opposite, with a sense of occasion and triumph. My favourite is German techno provocateurs Phoneheads, recorded in the late 90’s. It puts you front row of the concert hall.

Ok, so what has this got to do with Moby? As a club DJ and producer Moby took you on a trip into the cerebral, and as a punk he slapped you up against the wall, in his quieter moments you heard him whispering in your ear, and always there was this constant soundtrack quality with sweeping strings and lush, bold and epic statement. So where has all that gone? Swapping live strings for digital washes doesn’t add credibility or additional impact. Listen to the original ‘God Moving Over The Water’, then compare it to the luke-warm variant on ‘Reprise’. It’s just an also-ran.

The album-slash-soundtrack begins with ‘Everloving’ as the overture. Again, a chance to do something really spectacular with this one is lost. Especially given the opportunity to bring in a full orchestra. There’s a very subtle difference between the original that appears on ‘Play’ and this one. Close listening will reveal a warmer sound, with violins and cellos and bass filling in. The original opens with a ‘demo’ guitar recording complete with apartment hiss and Moby’s own out of key humming, before breaking into a full headset jam. The latest take ignores all of that, excludes the roots and origins of the track, rejects its humble production origins. And in doing so, sounds just like the show’s band winding into first act.

Speaking of, the show must go on. The very excellent Gregory Porter adds a couple of extra lines and his wonderful noveau soul tonsils to the remake of ‘Natural Blues’ and Amythyst Kiah provides additional Sunday Service BV’s. I knew this is essentially a Gospel track but what made the original special was the mixing of vintage audio and techno. Call me a purist but this new rendition just sounds like an outtake from an updated version of ‘Godspell’. There’s nothing special, surprising or wondrous here. You can’t fault anyone specifically. I just doesn’t stand out.

If the new version of ‘Go’ featured live percussion and real African drummers, then that would be special. However, because it’s been studio scrubbed to within an inch of its life I can’t tell what’s real and what’s digital.

Why Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ is on here is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps there’s a few clues in the film. Obviously, the man himself appears, but so what? I played this slower, more melancholy interpretation, sung by Mindy Jones, to my 10-year-old daughter (our resident Bowie fan). She turned her nose up. “That’s so bland. Is this from a TV advert? Insurance or a charity or something?” I’d have to agree. Towards the end, a choir bleeds in with the chorus. But it’s too little too late and the opportunity for a really emotive swelling of chords and vocals never really comes. I felt let down.

However, the choir does get to stretch their legs on the big hit ‘Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad’ sung by Apollo Jane. That has more promise. But, in reality, this is just another great cover in the Broadway style. It’s mostly true to the original, with no particular outstanding features or clever additions.

The saving grace is ‘The Lonely Night’ with wise and gristled vocal performances by Kris Kristoferson and Mark Lanegan. Both have the aura and presence of that understated worldly style. Just as Johnny cash made Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy The Silence’ cool, so do they. You can’t really put your finger on it. It’s a dusty, travel weary feel they give. Like getting Robert Wyatt to do your narrations. It’s credible. It’s the most compelling interpretation.

Aside from that, there are no real standouts. ‘Lift Me Up’ could be a huge gospel choir number or a chance to mix D’n’B with quality orchestral maneuvers, just as Shapeshifter once did with the Christchurch Orchestra. On “The Great Escape’ I was underwhelmed by Nataly Dawn, Alice Sky and Luna Li. Although Skye’s smoky voice did help it along a bit. Doing this with a quartet was a good idea, just a bit dull because it lacked any edge or intensity. Give it to Nick Cave for a bit of disturbance.

‘Almost Home’ with the trio voices of Mindy Jones, Darlingside and Novo Amor is worth another listen. It has some charm and that edge I’ve been asking for. They harmonize well, and that’s a pleasure. But where austerity would have worked better, Moby can’t help adding reverb and layers and the un-necessity of a full band Euro beat. Again it sounds like a musical number when it could have been so much more – or, in this case, less.

When the credits finally roll, it’ll be with ‘The Last Day’ playing us out. Another new voice appears. Skylar Grey. Why didn’t she do ‘Heroes’? I can here the drama and intensity. And another wispy, smoky effort, but considerably more convincing. “Exhale the dark and grey” she breathes, “You’ve only just discovered the sun on the last day.” Yeah, Moby can be a miserable little so-and so at times.

No doubt ‘Reprise’ is an album, a soundtrack, a retrospective and a re-invention but despite the neo-classical intentions, I just felt that the opportunity to really try something big, bold and bewildering was missed. If Moby was an artist pushing the envelope, then he’s missed the post on this one. Sure, these remakes are pleasant enough, but there’s no ‘wow!’ It shows that with the sorcery of chemicals, flashing lights and the throbbing of ‘doof-doof’ club speakers these tunes really sparked ecstatic joy. But I’m not totally convinced they’ll translate to a concert hall setting without losing some of that magic. Stripped back, EDM doesn’t always work in the ‘classical’ cross-over. The strings replace the synths but with little significant impact or difference. And without the techno cloak this wizardry is just a Muggle in an old dressing gown.

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