Maneuvers in the Dark

Minor major artist serves up his long-awaited two-CD complimentary hospitality suite

Well, first off, it's not bad, but before we get to that, full disclosure: I know the guy pretty well. Not as well as lots of other downtown folks, but somewhere there are photos of the two of us waltzing arm in arm at a friend's wedding held at a restaurant that used to be on top of one of the two towers that no longer stand at the base of Manhattan. But I digress.

So to get right to the point: two CDs, one of dreamy keyboard-heavy dance rock that would have sounded excellent on the soundtrack of that late-'80s John Hughes movie where Molly Ringwald played a stripper (never actually released anywhere except inside my head), the other of techno-pastoral instrumentals, also keyboard-heavy. Disc one has blues-gone-glam guitar, not many dance beats, and was played on instruments, not sampled, though it isn't all that different from his computer music, go figure. Disc two is computer music. Together they're called Hotel, and are for sale in the minibars and gift shops of 21 W hotels in North America. (Perfect tie-in: Turn the W upside down and it's an M.) The liner notes invoke our transient state as tourists in this earthly world, not that you'd know about it from listening to the songs, which stop at suggesting that relationships are the kind of thing Moby checks in and out of. But first thing you'll notice: This is the kind of music they play in the lobbies of boutique hotels. Sexy, mysterioso, murky but precise, full of a curiously heavy uplift, like Red Bull and vodka. Makes me want to have a drink and fuck. Especially when the girl sings.

About the girl: She's named Laura Dawn, provides backup throughout, gets two duets and two leads, the first of which is a chanteusey cover of New Order's "Temptation" that's been shot full of muscle relaxant. Best thing on the record. Four tracks later, she's pretending she's a couple of seconds away from a very stoned and very convincing orgasm on "I Like It." Second best thing on the album. Third best? Wistful electro-ballad "Dream About Me." Guess who sings on it.

Thing is: I'm not so sure it's a good sign when someone else's songs and someone else's vocals are the best things on your album, even if your all-time classic is essentially built from other people's songs and vocals. Hotel asks the same question as Moby's last record, 18: Is it OK for a major artist to make a minor album? About half of Bob Dylan's catalog says yes; about two-thirds of David Bowie's says no. Before you point out that both of those artists are more major than Moby (and that in the case of Bowie, we're not talking minor albums, we're talking mediocre ones, a major risk with a minor album), let me remind you of the remarkable string of messy and messianic albums that led up to the quite major Play, which he has now followed with not one but two modest recaps, the first of Play, this one of the robo-disco he grew up on: Depeche Mode, Sisters of Mercy, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. Impeccably made, hedonistic, lovelorn, catchy, compelling. But spiritual, messianic, visionary? Not by a long shot.

So: Hate on him if you want. Me, I say visionary every time out is a rube's dream, and not only that, your dream is demanding, rube. I enjoy minor every bit as much as visionary, sometimes more. Oh, and the ambient disc? Textural more than compositional, Eno with Vangelis dreams. Convincing when it manages to evoke a beat, otherwise good for a massage. But definitely the "aural Xanax" its creator intends. I'd take it with me the next time I check into a hotel. Unless it's already there.

 
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