“Nowadays, you can copyright music, the song, the words, the lyrics, but you can’t and never could copyright the feeling, the meaning, the blues.” That’s Brit radio host and music crit Steve Barker, in the notes to The Wolf That House Built, Little Axe’s 1994 good-idea, good-execution debut, pairing up On-U-Sound macher Adrian Sherwood with Little Axe (featuring guitarist Skip McDonald) for a dubtronic blues session. Wolf—which also featured McDonald’s Sugarhill house band cohorts Doug Wimbush and Keith LeBlanc and the not-yet-ubiquitous Talvin Singh—was something of a revelation, at times psychedelic and spooky, but more often a subtle tug-of-war between plaintive guitar twangs and ambient, melodic backdrops, with neither side giving in.
Of course, in the dizzying mist of hyper-licensing and über-branding that was Play, Moby might have skipped those liner notes, but he almost certainly heard that album: knowledge imparted without lesson. A bridge for boomers who cherished authenticity but hated the dancefloor, Play allowed Moby access to all the worlds that wouldn’t have him before. Having the blues in your pocket, he found, is like being on the guest list plus 10, so it’s no surprise Play did better than, say, Moby’s speedmetal screeds of old, or even his arena techno. On 18, Moby doesn’t stray too far from the Lomaxis. Celebrity is fickle, and he’s not yet secure enough to step off the shoulders he’s been denting for the past three years. It’s a long way down.
Ironically, just as Moby’s reappeared (did he ever leave?) to pay another few years on his mortgage, Little Axe have shown up again to trigger the memory. Their new one, Hard Grind, is a bit more roomy and a bit less spacey than Wolf was. It doesn’t find an explicit groove until “All Night Long,” five songs in, which lopes along like trad Delta with a hot foot. Then “Midnight Dream” kicks in with Timbaland assuredness.
“Long Way to Go” might be the most explicit dub on the album, but the shimmering effects it employs wouldn’t be too out of place on the Centro-Fly dancefloor. Rather than making blues more proper, Chicago-style, Little Axe make them just a bit mussier. They’re neither validating the past via the present nor vice versa.
Little Axe may have done it first, but what would Moby say to someone who just plain does it better? Uwe Schmidt’s second album as Geeez ‘N’ Gosh, Nobody Knows, puts the blues to work in less servile conditions. Also known for his Latin-house Kraftwerk covers as Señor Coconut and space-jazz collaborations as Flanger, the Frankfurt-born Schmidt isn’t necessarily a more accomplished integrator of styles than Moby, but his compositions have true bite and rhythm—toying with bubbling textures on “We Call On Him” and off-kilter, broken beats on “Pray.” The sampled blues and gospel vocals are almost uniformly understated, overwhelmed by the booty glitch of “Mother Showed Me (the Way to Go)” and reduced to percussion on “Swing Down Sweet Chariot.”
Naturally, there’s a Riefenstahl reflex surrounding anything involving Germans and race (speaking of Germans, the G’n’G project has a fine kindred spirit in the Soul Center series of Stax/Motown-raiding techno by Cologne minimalist Thomas Brinkmann, the third installation of which was just released on Novamute), but Schmidt doesn’t lean too heavily on his blues as crutches. Only when some Sam Cooke sound-alike (or not?) croons through “The Love of God” does it feel like there’s a sound war going on. Everywhere else, Schmidt is, fittingly, kind of blue.