Thomas Dolby

You can divide a lot of the synth-pop or New Wave music of the 80’s into two categories – the lighter, catchier stuff; pop music played with new machines, sung by guys with neat haircuts (a-ha, Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls, early Depeche Mode), and the cold, mechanical stuff, new machines programmed to play pop music, sung by guys who wished they were machines (Gary Numan, John Foxx, OMD, later Depeche Mode). Thomas Dolby slotted in nicely with all of this since he was somewhere in between – there was always a touch of sweetness and humanity in his voice, and his lyrical topics were easy to identify with (nostalgia, lost love, getting the funk, fondness for lost submarines), but most of his persona revolved in some way around machines. This was a guy who always seemed to be buried behind his keyboards and described getting rejected by a woman as being “failed in biology”. Hell, he even had his last name changed as a tribute to his old cassette machine. Now, as far as I can tell, the idea of the "mad genius" Dolby was mostly played up by his record company; he's never really been a mad scientist or a synth-head, but he does seem to be pretty obsessed with technologoy. He actually strikes me as a pretty damn smart guy; Dolby had a second career in a company that made polyphonic ringtones, and as far as I know made more money than he ever did as a musician. But it’s his musical career that he’ll be remembered for; particularly the purposely campy “She Blinded Me With Science”, which gained popularity mostly due to Magnum Pyke’s guest vocal and a cool video that went into heavy rotation on MTV – it didn’t hurt that he was better looking (and thus more marketable) than Numan or the guys from Devo either.

I always felt that Dolby got shortchanged – he’s known as a one-hit wonder, although his debut album contained several other worthy singles, and his later, more serious work, was sometimes astounding. The truth is that his one big single is an anomaly in his catalogue; if he instead struck big with one of his better songs like "Windpower" or "Europa and the Pirate Twins", who knows how his career would have played out.

The Golden Age of Wireless (1982)
You probably already guessed that Dolby was capable of spinning out a catchy tune, but you probably didn’t know the guy also had what Huey Lewis calls "heart and soul". This may be one of the most balanced albums of the New Wave era – you have your rock and your ballads, and equal doses of catchiness and resonance, often within the same track. I’ve always considered “Windpower” to be the quintessential Dolby track – at the surface, it’s well-written and melodically strong, but beyond that there’s a sense of technological wonder and mystery behind it. It almost sounds menacing in spots, even though the song seems to be describing some type of utopia, and the wordless sing-along section in the end is breathtaking. It’s a fantastic track and one of my favorite New Wave songs, but the whole album is synth-hooks galore, which is great since every track has a good one. “Europa and the Pirate Twins” was Dolby’s first failed single, and undeservedly so; it’s as effortlessly catchy and bouncy as anything you’d find on an 80’s comp, and it still holds up today. Other highlights include the ringing synth hook of “Flying North”, the jumpy ska-based near-instrumental “Wreck of the Fairchild”, and the epic, two-part closer “Cloudburst at Shingle Street”. Basically it comes down to how much you like the synthesizers – guitars take a back seat on every track sans “Commercial Breakup”. While Dolby doesn’t have a very distinctive voice, it’s more flexible than it appears, and it is capable of carrying a song on its back (“Airwaves”, one of the best selections here). If you’re a fan of synth-pop, this is a treasure trove – Dolby’s impeccable sense of melody shines brightly, and the way he brings a human touch to the synthesizer is refreshing in an era where synths were often cold and robotic. That reflects the subject matter well – radio is an incredible technology, but its chief purpose is keeping people connected. So despite all the technology, Dolby reamins the spotlight, and you get the sense that these songs would work even without keyboards. This is essential.

Special Note: There are (at least) 5 different versions of this album on the market, each with a different tracklisting. The original UK release is what is reviewed above, but by far the most common is the US version that begins with “She Blinded Me With Science” and includes “One Of Our Submarines”. Here’s what changes from the different pressings - those two tracks, along with “The Wreck of the Fairchild”, “Urges”, and the excellent single “Leipzig”, along with a faster, guitar heavy version of “Radio Silence”, and different edits of “Science” and “Airwaves”. Since the 2009 remaster restores the original (UK) tracklisting and includes everything else (and more) as bonus tracks, the popular US version is obsolete, hence why the UK version is reviewed above.

The Flat Earth (1984)
Well, this is much different than the debut: it's much more mature (to a pretty surprising degree, considering the last album was only 2 years ago), as he drops most of the chirpy synth noises and dance rhythms. Synthpop this ain't - the most prominent instruments here are the fretless bass and the piano, and the drum machine parts are generally sparse and unobtrusive - instead, there's a variety of percussive instruments, mostly relegated to the background. The focus here lies more on atmosphere - half the tracks don't have a chorus, and Dolby tends to let the songs evolve on their own (or not). There are only 7 songs here, but they're all carefully arranged, layered, and produced, and it's easy to find things hidden in the mix. For those looking for something with a bit of snap to it, there's only really one upbeat track here - "Hyperactive!", Dolby's second top 40 single (originally written for Michael Jackson), is as catchy and danceable as anything on the last album. The rest will just have to grow on you - even the second single "Dissidents" is more cerebral than funky even though it features a prominent funk groove. It's the slower, moodier material that holds up the best - the title track is one of Dolby's most complex compositions, but it's also very accessible - he puts the most melodic elements up front and leaves the captivating atmospheric parts to the background. But it's the R&B-style backing vocals that grab my attention the most; if you only knew Dolby as a one-hit wonder, you'd be shocked that he could also write songs like this. "Screen Kiss" is another fantastically composed tune, a reflective and multi-layered song that you wouldn't think Dolby would be capable of two years ago. It's produced to sound sparse - the lead instruments often echo, and the rhythm tracks are buried in the mix, which gives the song a haunting sense of isolation.

The other standout is the cover of Dan Hicks' "I Scare Myself", in which Dolby's vocals ride surprisingly smooth. As surprising as it is to hear a New Wave guy even attempt a cover of this song, it's more surprising to hear him pull it off - the vocal work on this album is ace, even on the more abstract stuff ("Mulu the Rainforest"). This probably could be a 4 1/2 star album, but there is some unremarkable stuff here - "White City" is a decent rocker, but is too long and too simple to hold with the rest, and "Mulu" isn't much more than a vocal experiment with a little bass work. Luckily, the re-release has a number of bonus tracks, one of which was a never recorded and should have been a single: the swinging, Latin-tinged "Marseille", which appears here as a live bonus track. The others are a couple of meandering remixes of "Europa and the Pirate Twins" and "Dissidents", soundtrack work for the films Howard the Duck (ouch) and Gothic, and the Sakamoto collaboration "Field Work". So let's piece together the 4 1/2 star album now - Side A would be the more upbeat: "Dissidents", a 3-minute edit of "White City", "Marseille", and "Hyperactive!". Side B would be the moody and more thoughtful part: "Screen Kiss", "Mulu the Rainforest", "I Scare Myself", and "The Flat Earth" as a closer. This isn't terribly different from the original album, but it would be a little more complete, and the weaker spots would blend in better. But hey, it's worth hearing either way, and had Dolby's star burned a little brighter this would be considered a classic.

Aliens Ate My Buick (1988)
Over the four years that followed The Flat Earth, Dolby almost seemed to abandon his solo career - he scored a couple of movies, became an in-demand producer and collaborator, and started hanging around guys like George Clinton. When it finally arrived, Dolby's 3rd album didn’t gather favorable reviews and disappeared quickly from the charts. I don't think that Dolby's compositional skills really deteriorated much, but he’s not aiming very high on this one. The genres range from plastic jazz to plastic funk to plastic swing, and quite frankly you have to admire his sense of adventure – I can’t think of any other New Wave guy who even listens to Parliament, much less would attempt a cover (“Hot Sauce”). It’s fun, but doesn’t really hold up over repeat listens, especially since a lot of these tunes are only half-songs (“The Ability to Swing”, “May the Cube Be With You”). The good news is that he has a pretty keen sense of humor – the old-style jazz “Keys to Her Ferrari” has a nice film-noir touch to it, and the lyrics are funny to boot. In this sense, “Airhead” works as a pretty good single, as it has a catchy groove and a number of memorable lines. The bad news is that musically this is mostly pretty trivial, with most of the songs not leaving much of an impression. He does stick some good stuff on the second side – the reggae based “My Brain is Like a Sieve” is a great laid-back tune that mines the same area that “I Scare Myself” did on the last album. It definitely would have fit in nicely with The Flat Earth. There is one 8-minute dirge that is by far the most serious song on the album and one of the best (“Budapest by Blimp”), but it’s so slow moving and downtempo compared to the rest that it sounds wildly out of place. So it’s not a great listen, but there are some good parts and it’s lightweight enough to not get boring despite some pretty lengthy track times. I’m not going to say that Dolby shouldn’t do funk (after all, “Hyperactive” was pretty great, and “Airhead” turns out quite well), but his voice is pretty wrong for the style (which is really half of the fun in “Hot Sauce” – I’m sure Dolby was well aware of this). Despite the low grade, I can’t call this a failure since he’s clearly not trying to replicate his earlier albums.

By the way, that is one amazing album cover.

Astronauts and Heretics (1992)
This is exactly what you'd expect from Dolby at this point - a mature, carefully crafted album that begs you to take the man seriously, and a complete 180 from the goofy funk workouts of the last album. Right off the bat, you can hear how labored this is – opener “I Love You Goodbye” starts with a string section, uses backup vocals, and contains one of Dolby’s best narratives yet. By the end of the song, some 10+ instruments have entered the mix, yet it still feels uncluttered. You can picture Dolby recording dozens of takes for this album, determined to get every little thing right, and for the opener at least, he absolutely nails it. When he hits upon a good idea, things roll along nicely - "I Live in a Suitcase" has a shifting bass line and an emphasis on atmospherics, and would have fit in well on The Flat Earth. That said, he doesn't seem to have a whole lot of good ideas left in him at this point. As far as the more pop-oriented material goes, only one cut really hits home - "Eastern Bloc" has a Bo Diddley beat and two memorable choruses, making it the catchiest song he's done since his debut. But that aside, none of the singles stuck, and the album largely went unnoticed. I can understand that; there are few big moments or great tracks (outside of "I Love You Goodbye"), but it's a good effort. Just a lot of decent songs with decent hooks ("That's Why People Fall in Love", "Close But No Cigar"), some tame, playful stuff ("Silk Pyjamas"), and songs that don't really make an impression at all ("Cruel", despite an Eddi Redder cameo, "Beauty of a Dream", despite a big adult-rock ending). But he doesn't really seem interested in making a real progression anyway, as he namedrops his old material, samples "Europa and the Pirate Twins" a bunch for "Eastern Bloc" (which tells the rest of the story), and tries to ape "Field Work" on "Neon Sisters". Lyrically, it is quite interesting from a storytelling perspective, which is really the album's big selling point. Sound-wise, it's mostly crisp and well done, though this is right on the cusp of bad late-80's production, so there are still some big drums, dated bass sounds, and bad funk synths, which don't really mesh well with this kind of music. Still, if you're a fan, this album is worth picking up, as it's so packed with detail that it can easily stand multiple listens.

The Gate to the Mind's Eye (1994)
This was a soundtrack that Dolby did for one of the CD-ROM "Mind's Eye" movies. These were essentially short, computer-animated movies with a sci-fi theme (usually outer space). With only the album itself, you feel like you're missing half of the story; it's not particularly melodic or memorable, but there are good sections. This is not exactly Brian Eno's Apollo, though you feel like Dolby was aiming for that kind of feel in some of the tracks. In particular, "The Ascent of Man, Parts I-VI" has some great atmospherics in parts and a few unexpected touches; but only a few of the actual parts are any good, and those don't last long enough. It seems to be more concerned with state-of-the-art audio effects, which is why some of this sounds like third-rate techno; "Armageddon" is just skittering electronic beats with free form noodling and diva vocals, and “Quantum Mechanic” is just a silly dance tune. As for Dolby himself, you only really hear him on a couple of tracks - "The Valley of the Mind's Eye" (along with two other vocalists), which is a gloomy and sparse R&B track, and "Nuvogue", which is a campy old-school jazz tune similar to "The Keys to Her Ferrari". Neither song is really worth the price of admission, though Dolby at least gives a decent effort. The other vocals are credited to someone named Dr. Fiorella Terenzi, who I had never heard of before; I Googled her and found out she was an Italian astrophysicist who turns out to be quite photogenic. But her voice is paper-thin, and it’s a good thing she get too many lines. She does a decent imitation of generic 90’s workout music vocals (“Quantum Mechanic”), but when she’s called upon for something more atmospheric the only thing you can really focus on is her accent (“N.E.O.). This really isn’t that bad, but it’s not something you’d want to listen to unless you had fond memories of the CD-ROM, and Dolby fans won’t really find much to grip on to; besides those two vocal spots, you’d never really know it was him.

The Sole Inhabitant (2006)
Dolby was absent from the music industry for about a decade, choosing to focus instead on his ridiculously lucrative Beatnik enterprise that pioneered the use of polyphonic ringtones. Eventually, he returned to music, launching a few small-profile tours, including the one from which this 2006 CD/DVD combo draws from. By now, the only time you'd really hear of Thomas Dolby was on I Love the 80's, so he was playing smaller rooms in front of fans that knew the real gems of his catalogue. While he was basically a dinosaur at this point, the man never did stop innovating, and these shows were unlike anything I've ever seen. Like the title says, Dolby really is the only performer on the stage, and unless you had the video, you wouldn't be able to see how he does it - essentially it is Dolby and his synths, a ton of pads, knobs, and a few pre-recorded effects. He’ll play one synth line, set it to loop, play a drum part on the pads, loop that, then play the lead and sing over it. So the songs are built from scratch, but are able to achieve a precision that a normal 'band' couldn't get. You can't see that on the CD, but the music itself is very clean (it’s one of the most professional-sounding live albums I've ever heard) and often very good. The songs are basically the same, but the synths are updated, and there are a lot of subtle differences when played live. In fact, the sparse sound of much of these material makes it sound like OMD plays Thomas Dolby, and that's a good thing. This isn't really an uptempo live performance, as the songs are more cerebral than danceable, and even the faster tunes get a more laid-back arrangement ("Hyperactive!"). In some cases it's stunning - "The Flat Earth" replaces the backup vocals with a shimmering synth tone, even adding new hooks in the mix. At the very least you have to appreciate the audience going silent during the quiet part - it's hard not to be captivated by that point. The longer tracks (“I Live in a Suitcase”, “Budapest by Blimp”) achieve this too – unlike most live performances, this one allows the compositions to breathe and take life on their own. As far as the tracklisting goes, this is all prime Dolby - half the material is from Golden Age of Wireless (including B-side "Leipzig"), along with the best stuff from the other three albums ("Airhead", "I Live in a Suitcase", etc.) Essentially this is Dolby reworking his best material into something modern, and since his voice is still in top form and he makes almost no mistakes, there's really no downside - fans ought to pick this up immediately. Even though he hasn't released any new material in over a decade, it's clear that he still has talent, and in the end my only complaint about this disc is that it isn't longer.

A Map of the Floating City (2011)
It's easy to see why Dolby was so excited about this album in the months leading to its release - despite the struggles and (eventual) collapse of the traditional music industry model, it's arguably never been a better time to be in the business, as the artist now has a seemingly infinte bank of sounds and tones to choose from, is able to mix and record without a proper studio, and can release their music however they see fit. So for the first time, he has complete control over every aspect of the product, something he takes full advantage of (creating an online game as a tie-in to the album, and releasing a series of digital preview EPs). Someone ought to tell Tom there's a loudness war going on - this is one of the most well-produced and arranged albums I've ever heard, and its clear that he had not only the enthusiasm for this project but also the patience to make it as good as it could possibly be, particularly on the lyrical front. Almost every song has a narrative and a distinct sense of location, making the album feel like a book of short stories (in addition to some music). Part of this is because there's so much to read in between the lines, as most of the lyrics seem like one part plot to two parts detail. Usually this matches the music ("Evil Twin Brother", a cryptic tale of alcoholism and an affair), though sometimes not ("Road to Reno" is an upbeat, jangly love song with a tragic ending).

Musically, things take a while to get going - of the first three tracks, the rolling, Indian electro-groove of "Spice Train" is the only one that really registers, but nearly everything afterwards works. The epic, 7+ minute "17 Hills" is the centerpiece - it's something of a subdued epic, recalling the best moments of The Flat Earth (especially in the stunning second half). If nothing else, this album is a testament to how great a songwriter Dolby really is, as he's able to captivate whether he's doing goofball bluegrass ("Toadlickers"), bossa nova ("Simone"), or gorgeous ballardy ("Oceanea", easily one of the best songs he's ever written). He's even able to write a great closing number that explodes in the second half ("To the Lifeboats"), recalling "Cloudburst on Shingle Street". For the most part, the arrangments are great, as he's clearly working with some talented people (including Mark Knopfler on "17 Hills") and gets a good sound out of every instrument. Most of this is based on piano and guitar, but there are strings, some electronics, some fretless bass, a theremin on one track, and even some auto-tune (trust me, it's good!). If there's one thing missing, it's a good pop tune - "Toadlickers" and "Road to Reno" are the only upbeat tracks, and the album could have truly been great had it led off with a good single. As it is, "Nothing New Under the Sun" is a dreary tribute to writer's block, featuring some weirdly self-conscious lyrics and a boring two-note bass line. "Evil Twin Brother" is a little better and has some club elements to it, but by the time you get to the meat of the album, it's clear why he shouldn't even attempt these things (outside of "Spice Train", which really is neat). Overall this is a hell of an album and maybe his best since Golden Age of Wireless, which is nuts for a guy whose one hit was nearly 30 years ago. One of my favorites of the year.