When Play came out in 1999, I gained a lot of respect for the way Moby dug into traditional American music and connected it to modern electronica. Of course, I didn't much care for traditional American music at the time, so I was bored silly by the actual album.
Boy, was I wrong.
Listening to it nine years later, with the sounds of Alan Lomax's Popular Songbook still ringing in my ears, I realize that Play is superb. (Several songs that Moby sampled for Play are included on Popular Songbook.) Moby reached back to a vital part of American history, and he brought forgotten songs to a modern audience. He made the music his own, while nourishing the roots from which it grew. And, best of all, he filled his album with heart, emotion, and passion.
Moby adds unique dancefloor production to the songs on Play without losing the essence of the original music. I never realized how stunning "Honey" was until I heard Bessie Jones' original a capella track, "Sometimes". On that song, as with most on the album, Moby took a great foundation and built something completely new. Not everything is about the past, though. "South Side" is unmistakably a late-'90s dance track, while the ambient/trip-hop leanings of the last seven songs are perfect for a car ride home late at night. If there's any flaw, it's that the last third of the CD doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the music.
I'm not sure if Moby did a good or bad thing by not writing about the songs he sampled for Play; he trusted us to hear the music and dig deeper, but he could have at least given us a starting point. Otherwise, the liner notes are unique and interesting. The booklet is filled with essays by and photos of Moby. I particularly like his closing comment that the essays and music aren't really related, and a person might like one while despising the other. It's a simple message that speaks of tolerance, and reminds us that the world is not polarized between "us" and "them."
Listen if you like: Fans of blues, folk, and/or gospel should absolutely give this a listen, if only to hear one interpretation of how old and new can be successfully married. The end of the album should appeal to fans of Massive Attack, Craig Armstrong, or Alpha, while the rest of the music is along the lines of Fatboy Slim or the Chemical Brothers.
If it were food, it'd be: Vegetarian chicken soup; a new take on a traditional recipe.