Monday, September 26, 2011

Thomas Dolby – A Map Of The Floating City

It’s been almost 20 years since the last album of original material from Thomas Dolby. Not the longest gap ever (wasn’t that Vashti Bunyan’s 35 year between album sojourn?), but long enough to get the fans positively drooling at the prospect of a new release. He pretty much gave up music for most of his exhile, preferring to focus on launching a business that gave the world polyphonic ringtones. Hmmmm...thanks for that. Happily he began playing again a few years back and now, after making a brace of EP’s available to his fans, here’s his first new offering of the 21st century. Being Thomas Dolby of course it’s not just a new album. Hell no. That would be far too easy. It was/is a ‘multiplayer online game too’ apparently. Given that the last computer game I played was Hungry Horace Goes Skiing on a 48K ZX Spectrum in 1983 I’ll gloss over that and just focus on the album, okay?

First off, don’t expect a return to his synth-tastic Golden Age Of Wireless era. He’s been pretty clear on the fact that he’s moved on from all that, boldly declaring “I have zero desire to add to the myriad of machine-based, synth-driven grooves out there”. I think that’s pretty clear don’t you? So anyone who’s coming to Dolby via the really old stuff then is likely to be a little surprised. For the more devoted Dolbyites there were hints of where he was going on the distinctly synth free Astronauts and Heretics album way back in 1992, not to mention its funk drenched older brother Aliens Ate My Buick (which, for the record, I kind of loved despite its brashness).

This new album’s apparently divided into three sections forming, according to Thomas, “a travelogue across three imaginary continents: In Amerikana I’m reflecting with affection on the years I spent living in the U.S.A., and my fascination with its roots music. Urbanoia is a dark place, a little unsettling . . . I’m not a city person. And in Oceanea I return to my natural home on the windswept coastline.” That’s the background to it all then, but is it any good? Well, yes, it is rather. It’s taken a few listens to get into it and, here and there, it does sound a little like it was recorded by one man in a studio converted from an old lifeboat (which it actually was), but boy it’s good to have him back. The album’s an eclectic mix of styles, in the first three tracks alone you get a little bitter MOR with Nothing New Under The Sun, the deliciously squelchy electro gypsy / middle eastern feel of Spice Train and, bizarrely, a track called Evil Twin Brother which features Regina Spector as a waitress and a Jacko impersonator that Dolby found on the internet (depending on your view of Jacko it’s arguably either the highlight or the nadir of the album).

Maybe after such a long time away he’s just in the mood for playing around with the genres. And why the hell not eh? After all arguably it’s this genre hopping that made him such an interesting artist back in the day, happily leaping from sparse synths on one album to full on funk on the next, seemingly without batting an eyelid. Here he takes this one step further, creating an album that’s prett much designed for the shuffle generation. Don’t like MOR or Jacko? Stay tuned then, there’s A Jealous Thing Called Love with its Burt Bacharach meets Herb Alpert feel, some gentle jazz and classical strings with the sophisticated Cole Porter-isms of Love Is Like A Loaded Pistol and this...The Toad Lickers, which goes seriously bluegrass on your ass.

If all that leaves you a little shagged out you can chill to the mystical theramin, sax, congo fest of Simone, which noodles on nicely for nearly 6 minutes (I read somewhere that this track’s inspired by his son Harper, who was born a biological female but had a sex change last year and now lives as a male).

Thomas leaves us (hopefully not for another 20 years this time) with To The Lifeboats, which starts off with some nice mellow guitar before exploding into a sudden squall of sound. Delving into the lyrics there I’m guessing these are metaphorical lifeboats we’re talking about here. Is this anything to do with Michael Ruppert (the dude who says the world is screwed, the climate’s buggered, there’s less oil than anyone wants to admit and the financial system is one giant ponzi scheme...which seems a pretty accurate assessment of things to me) and his Lifeboat Hour radio show? Could be. Anyway that would explain Dolby’s rather resigned “There are no fucking lifeboats” as the song reaches its peak. Whatever the meaning it caps off that rare beast, a comeback album that’s actually worth coming back to.

A Map Of The Floating City is out on Lost Toy People Records on October 24th and Dolby’s off on a UK tour (probably by spaceship) throughout November.

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