[25 March 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It used to be that the assemblage of a live album was quite the precarious tightrope act for big name musical acts. The longer the career spanned, the harder it was to cover all of the artist’s bases in concert while simultaneously promoting their latest material. Multiple takes were culled from multiple performances over the course of a tour, forcing musicians and producers to weigh the merits of musicianship versus energy, accuracy versus emotion. And it would be nice if it sold respectfully, to fans and passers by alike. However, in an age when everyone’s musical library has gone digital and the internet’s bandwidth seems to behave like an entropic universe, these concerns of getting a live album “just right” have faded over time. Now it seems that any in-concert documentation has the potential to be uploaded to a website like iTunes for mass consumption, be it a complete show stopper or something weaker than a mere musical footnote. The availability of so many download options on the internet forces music consumers to ask themselves an important question; is this new collection truly unique by offering advantages over the artist’s studio albums, thereby holding its own in their respective discography? Or is it just a middling afterthought? In a bid to be stripped-back and intimate, Moby’s iTunes Live from Montreal too often falls into the latter category.
It was while touring in support of his latest release Wait for Me that DJ/singer-songwriter Moby, a.k.a. Richard Hall, stopped by an Apple store in Montreal with a handful of fellow musicians for a low-key performance in front of a small Canadian iCrowd. This live arrangement is strikingly minimal compared to what Moby has done recently. Wait for Me was already a pretty muted affair to begin with, but the instrumentation of just guitar, piano, violin, and voices seem to make the same songs shrink even further, like cotton in the wash. The “unplugged” aesthetic that ran amok in alternative music during the ‘90s was driven by the notion that less was more. Through soft guitars and even softer drums, there was potential for an excellent song to speak louder than before. This particular set is presented in such a low light that less is not enough. Moby’s brand of brightly ornate yet tame trip-hop usually comes with a preferable amount of window dressing, and it’s too bad he didn’t bring it to the Apple store that day.
Of the ten songs on iTunes Live from Montreal, six come from Wait for Me, three are plucked from past Moby albums, and one is the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tune “Helpless”. Yet, all of these songs sound like they came from the very same bean grinder in a dimly lit coffee shop run by Moby. For all the accusations that Moby is overly reliant on technology, the musicianship of this recording can not be faulted. No one hits a bum note and no one hiccups. In particular, two female vocalists from the tour—Kelli Scarr and Inyang Bassey—give very professional and reliable performances. Moby’s singing voice, as showcased on “Porcelain”, “Mistake”, and “We Are All Made of Stars”, continues to sound like Ringo Starr with stage fright.
The spot-on performances and paired-down arrangements also unfortunately highlight just how melodically deprived Moby’s slower songs can be. There is no doubt that mood overshadows compositional intricacies in Moby’s music; any fan can tell you that. But in trading hip beats for such a stark approach, Moby does these songs no favors. To put it simply, they all sound too weak in addition to sounding too similar. The song that shines the brightest is “The Great Escape” from 2002’s 18, simply by its own melodic merits.
It stands to reason that this performance will probably mean the most to the people who were in attendance that day. As a recorded live document, it is anything but essential. Usually such a singular and one-dimensional performance is best recommended to the truly dedicated. Still, it’s hard to imagine even the most deathly serious Moby fan wanting to invest more than two listens into what amounts to a curiosity, especially when more interesting versions of these songs already exist. Sure, Moby has persisted through the current musical climate long enough to do what he wants. His dues are paid and the sale of a superfluous release like iTunes Live from Montreal rides strictly on good will.