Moby, Mogwai, more

Moby Play (V2)

There are a few electronic producers whose personality precedes their music. Moby certainly qualifies as one of them; he's defined as much by what he says as by what he creates. Indeed, the liner notes for Play, the opinionated artist's new release, contain no words or lyrics but instead a collection of essays that touches on everything from veganism (he's a practitioner) to violence at abortion clinics to anti-Semitism. Thanks, but, uh, what about the music? The album is just as complicated and hard to pin down as the artist himself. It's a strange and unexpected amalgam of decades-old black field recordings and electronic beats. Sometimes—as in "Honey," "Find My Baby," and "Why Does My Heart Hurt So Bad?"—this combination works wonders; Moby's music envelops these ultra-human vocals, some pained, some joyous. "Find My Baby" gets pinned to a hip-hop beat, but traces of acid-house turn up later, the lyrics and music working together to create a tranced-out stupor. Play is least successful when Moby sings (sorry), but his combination of new and old produces a surprisingly catchy, if confusing, piece of work, as ambiguous and politicized as the artist himself.—Tricia Romano

Mogwai Come On Die Young (Matador)

Their second full-length finds Mogwai highlighting the pretty side of their brand of post-rock. The young Glaswegians' Come On Die Young is somewhat disappointing, but not for lack of good material. The title track is the album's best, with its Bedhead twang and surprising vocals (till now, the band has produced instrumentals almost exclusively). "Helps Both Ways" combines the 'gwai penchant for minimalist guitar melody with—believe it—horns and woodwinds to beautiful effect. "Year 2000 Non-Compliant Cardia" is another gem; it's thick bass and whispery geetar-groove laid atop a quiet maelstrom of Y2K noise. Unfortunately, the beauty of this album is also its downfall: It's just too nice. Absent is the pretty-pretty/LOUD-LOUD formula, straight from godfather Slint, that made Mogwai's 1998 debut, Mogwai Young Team, so amazing. CODY tracks like "May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door" and "Ex-Cowboy" almost do it, but pale in comparison to the previous album's "Like Herod" or "Mogwai Fear Satan." Come On Die Young resonates with Mogwai's patented seductive sleepiness—and this in itself makes the new record worthwhile—but it also lacks the crucial sneak-up, big-ass, wide-open, rock sucker-punch that scares the bejeezus out of you. Lads, get out of your Big Country and study up.—Jacob McMurray

Various artists Ruffhouse Records Greatest Hits (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

Violence and murder squelched hip-hop's greatest debate. I'm not talkin' about whether Puffy and some thugs beat up a Universal executive, or if Wyclef pulled a gun on a Blaze editor, but about the Bad Boy/Death Row feud and the resulting deaths of Tupac and Biggie. Tragic as their demises may be, a more severe loss is the dialogue about which style represented hip-hop's true purpose. The West Coast's cold-chillin', funk-infused hip-hop drove the East's purists mad with rage, as evidenced in Tim Dog's bilious "Fuck Compton," a 1991 rant that's reprised on this 10th-anniversary greatest-hits collection. Over a stark beat and vertiginous backing, Tim Dog assailed gangstas with words rather than bullets: "Having that gang war/We wanna know what you're fightin' for/Fightin' over colors?/All that gang shit's for dumb motherfuckers." Making matters more complex, LA's Cypress Hill combined West Coast frontin' with the arty constructions of New York pioneers like Public Enemy to come up with tuneful yet incendiary cuts like "How I Could Just Kill a Man" and the unforgettable "Insane in the Brain"—two highlights of this compilation. Ruffhouse both stoked the sociological battle and made it irrelevant, signing acts from both coasts, championing child rappers Kris Kross (whose "Jump" is the most dated-sounding of the hits here) and serving as the springboard for crossover kings (and queen) the Fugees. Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill—who also have solo cuts on the disc—make melodic, accessible music that embodies hip-hop's evolution from cultural curiosity to pop-culture mainstay. Excepting Puffy and Wyclef's adolescent behavior, I guess we can all just get along.—Richard A. Martin

Tim Berne The Empire Box (Screwgun)

Like John Zorn, Tim Berne wields a spiny alto saxophone, using it as the nerve center of his compositions and also pricking the ear with his fleet imagination and learned execution. Also like Zorn, Berne has had to create his own label in order to disseminate most of his music, despite having been signed to Columbia and the Polygram-distributed JMT Records. He's founded his second indie label, Screwgun, and with the five-CD set Empire Box he's paying his first indie label, and his first recordings, much-deserved homage. All Screwgun releases come in ruddy-looking cardboard, with distinctive, bold-stroke graphics that dwindle artily into scribble—a neat visual parallel to Berne's music. With a cast of collaborators that includes clarinet great John Carter, cornetist Olu Dara, the Cline brothers (drummer Alex and guitarist Nels), drummer Paul Motian, and trombonist Glenn Ferris, Berne digs into chunky numbers that show Charles Mingus' gusting influence, as well as spry shambles that echo Ornette Coleman. Then there are the long-form works, with grand melodic tentacles and explosive crashes, all built on a purposeful, post-bebop, post-free-jazz aesthetic that smells pretty darn punky as well. Berne's music is a treasure trove, and this collection showcases long-harbored gems.—Andrew Bartlett

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