Record Review: Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth DLX RM

EMi | UK | CD | 2009 |  50999 2 67911 2 8

EMi | UK | CD | 2009 | 50999 2 67911 2 8

Thomas Dolby: The Flat Earth DLX RM UK CD [2009]

  1. Dissidents
  2. The Flat Earth
  3. Screen Kiss
  4. White City
  5. Mulu The Rain Forest
  6. I Scare Myself
  7. Hyperactive!
  8. Get Out Of My Mix
  9. Puppet Theatre
  10. Dissidents [The Search For Truth Part 1]
  11. Field Work [London Mix]
  12. Don’t Turn Away
  13. The Devil Is An Englishman
  14. I Scare Myself [live]
  15. Marseille [live]

I was very impressed by Thomas Dolby, from the first time I saw his amazing video for “Europa” on the margins of MTV in 1982. The song was incredible; catnip for a synth lover like myself. Actually getting the “Golden Age Of Wireless” album was impossible for me in 1982, when it was released. It remained until US Capitol issued the “Blinded By Science” EP in 1983 and “Wireless” was further rejigged [the US copy was always very different from the UK version] that I was finally able to find a copy of the now-ubiquitous 2nd US version of “The Golden Age Of Wireless” for sale. I loved that record, even though I still held out for [and got] the 1st US copy a bit later down the road.

“She Blinded Me With Science” was a hoot for my geek friends. But it represented a huge comedown from the level of musical accomplishment that “Wireless” offered. When “Science” became a freak, novelty hit and sold truckloads, it was yet another “line in the sand hit” that had massive creative repercussions for the artist in question. Not unlike when a certain Scot band agreed to do a quickie song for a US teen film. In the case of Simple Minds, it meant almost a decade of the band relegated to stadiums and severe disappointment with their recorded output as they nimbly chased the leprechaun over the rainbow and filled their coffers with both gold and my disdain.

With Dolby, the reasoning went that when one cartoon funk track became a huge hit, why not try another one? When I saw the MTV World Premiere Video in 1984 for the single “Hyperactive!” I was greatly disheartened by what I heard. The other single I’d later heard off of his album “The Flat Earth” was a cocktail jazz cover version of Dan Hicks’ “I Scare Myself.” Sure, it fit right in with the NWOBJP zeitgeist, but that was not what I wanted from Dolby at that time! At that point, I wrote off Dolby and pretty much ignored him for the better part of a decade. All I heard from that point on from Dolby in passing were “cartoon funk” tracks as he pointlessly chased after his freak hit for another grab at the brass ring.

It remained until I bought some CD singles from the “Astronauts + Heretics” album [for their vintage B-sides – never before on CD] in 1993 for me to come back around to listening to Dolby again. The A-sides, particularly “Silk Pyjamas,” caught me the right way in 1995 or so. A decade later, and I finally sprang for the “Heretics” album, which I really enjoyed. He’d obviously realized that he’d never score with another “She Blinded Me With Science” again, and while the album wasn’t synthpop per se [far from it], it did proffer well written songs that had were the products of an eclectic talent.

Within a few years, I made a collection of Dolby rarities on CD [encompassing the periods of his first two albums only] and when I found the DLX CD+DVD live album “The Sole Inhabitant” in 2009 after its release, I was a bona fide fan again. His laptop-era one-man concert was fantastic! I’d turned my nose up at the prospect of Dolby live in 1988 where I lived, but now I was hot to see him perform. The icing on the cake came this year when I saw Dolby twice on tour, once on his first leg of his US tour promoting his excellent “Map Of The Floating City” album. That came after a 20 year break from music that saw him working in software instead of pop. And recently for a second time when he played at Moogfest 2012 in Asheville, North Carolina. Then, last weekend, I was perusing the bins at a local store and spied the 2009 DLX RM of that “difficult” 2nd Dolby album I’d never heard, so I snatched it up straightaway and thus begins this tale.

The album began with “Dissidents,” which was a fantastic funk number but not in the George Clinton sense of the word that had so mired Dolby’s creativity in the 80s. This was a funk track informed by the art-funk of Talking Heads, or more accurately, JAPAN – from their amazing “Tin Drum” era. The odd, jazzy meter of the rhythms, capably punctuated by Dolby’s excellent typewriter samples, ensured that this song would stimulate your cranium before your feet. I’d heard the fantastic François Kevorkian remixes of this in the 90s, and the album cut differs somewhat, but it’s clearly an amazing track, both musically and lyrically. Had this been the leadoff single in 1984, I would have been all over this album.

I’d heard the great title cut live on the “Sole Inhabitant” package as well as in person. Dolby intended this to be a single from the album, and again, had it been, I wouldn’t have waited 28 years to buy this album! The feel of this cut presages the vibe from the “Astronauts + Heretics” album eight years down the line as Dolby builds up gentle rhythms via samples and attains a sound not unlike middle period China Crisis.

While I missed almost a decade of Dolby music, I enjoyed his contemporary productions of Prefab Sprout. He’d produced the breakthrough “Steve McQueen/Two Wheels Good” album for that Irish band and after listening to “Screen Kiss” I was floored by the comparisons in sound, production, and composition to Prefab Sprout. In all candor, “Screen Kiss” sounds like a template that Paddy McAloon latched onto for dear life and rode hard… for the rest of his career! I’d always wondered at the metamorphosis that the band underwent in moving from their quirky, but awkward debut album, “Swoon,” to their second, dramatically better, album. I can now state that they pilfered all they could from Dolby and this song was ground zero for the band’s rebirth. McAloon’s mature lyrical turns of phrase and even his vocal phrasing echo what Dolby achieves here, a year earlier. Lesley Fairbairn’s breathy backing vocals map out exactly the territory that Wendy Smith will explore for the rest of her time in Sprout. And naturally, the synth patches here were re-used on “Steve McQueen” without much tweaking at all. Uncanny!

Side two begins with “White City,” which is the one song here that could have been on “Wireless.” It mirrors the sort of middle ground material that wasn’t foll-bore synthpop like “Flying North.” It’s more in line with songs like “Commercial Breakup” with its conventional rock elements on equal footing with Dolby’s synths. The next track, “Mulu The Rain Forest” was always an off putting title to my ears. It just didn’t sound like a song that I wanted to hear. The word “Mulu” made me uncomfortable, somehow. The track is not bad; it attains a jazzy feel that belies its world music trappings, but I also hear future echoes of the Prefab Sprout yet to come while listening to this.

“I Scare Myself” was the sort of thing that probably should have been a B-side since it’s a cover song. While Dolby dabbling in the NWOBJP in 1984 rubbed me the wrong way, I am not so inflexible now. I’ve grown to like the song, which is more than I can say about “Hyperactive!” If having a hit with one gimmicky funk number led to gold, why not throw the relative subtlety of “Science” right out the window and go for broke? Authoritative voice overs covered? Check! Corny synth funk licks as subtle as a platform shoe? Check! All of this grates on my ears, but the real deal-killer for me are the strident vocals by Adele Bertei.

Quite frankly, when I heard them for the first time, I swore that Dolby was using pitch alteration on his voice which made a gimmicky cut even moreso, at least in my mind. It was over a decade later when I found out it was a woman singing, but it didn’t matter. It still gives me the hives to hear Bertei sing on that cut. Dolby’s liner notes reveal that he originally wrote the tune for Michael Jackson and that explains a lot! The one good thing I can say about the track as on evidence here, is that it is the shortest edit of the tune I’ve heard yet.

Dolby also reveals in his great liner notes that he was halfway done recording this album when stardom and MTV beckoned, interrupting him with only seven tracks delivered before the demands of promotion brought an end to his recording. EMI had no qualms at releasing a 37 minute album and there it sat, until it came time to remaster the album for re-issue. Peter Mew at Abbey Road did a great job. Dolby ensured that this would not be another salvo on the part of evil in the Loudness Wars. Then he personally picked an eclectic selection of bonus material that more than doubles the tracks on the disc.

The Dolby’s Cube megamix is more cartoon funk, slightly ennobled by the “Europa” samples it heavily relies on. Better is the “Puppet Theatre” B-side which attained actual funk classic status as the basis for Whodini’s “Magic Wand.” But the production isn’t as gimmicky as were “Science” or “Hyperactive!” and I’m fine with the results. The 12″ A-side of “Dissidents” is sturdy and impressive as ever. It’s the only remix on this remaster since Dolby thinks very highly of the results.

I was thrilled to see that the A-side of “Field Work,” the non-LP single Dolby recorded with Ryuichi Sakamoto is included here for posterity. It is, hands down, my favorite Thomas Dolby track ever, and sits in the stratosphere for Sakamoto tracks as well in my pantheon of sound! Not surprisingly, JAPAN’s Steve Jansen drums here for the crisp precision that he could best bring to this project. The juxtaposition of the piano ostinato with the widescreen synths and percussion thrills me on every listen. I can’t say the same about the song that sits next to this cut.

I never made a bee-line to hear any of Dolby’s “Howard The Duck” soundtrack after I saw the title track video slumming on MTV’s 120 Minutes! “Don’t Turn Away” is the one song there that he sang, and it’s a ghastly Allee Willis co-write replete with a strictly-by-the-books Stevie Wonder harmonica solo only a hair’s breadth away from self-parody. It’s the horror of late 80s “R+B” as written and performed by computers. Hands down, it’s the worst Dolby song ever to cross my threshold. Another left-field soundtrack cut is appended here for good measure. “The Devil Is An Englishman” comes from Dolby’s soundtrack to Ken Russell’s flamboyant “Gothic” flick. It’s another novelty song, this time with only sound bites from the film and Timothy Spall’s narration. I can’t bring myself to call it a vocal. Still, for all its earnest eccentricity, I’d rather hear it than the previous track!

Finally, two live tracks from the “Flat Earth” tour are on offer here. The live take of “I Scare Myself” was included due to Dolby’s esteem for Lyndon Connah’s Fairlight trumpet solo chops. The audience was also impressed, judging by the applause after the solo. It’s striking, but it doesn’t erase memories of Bowie’s Moog/trumpet solo on “Big Brother” a decade earlier. “Marseilles” was a song he co-wrote with Adele Bertei but neither of them ever recorded in the studio, making this performance its only manifestation. It’s a sprightly Latinesque number [in spite of its title] that sounds halfway between the NWOBJP of Working Week and Matt Bianco. An intriguing sidestep for Dolby.

One thing that this album conveys to me in retrospect, is just how much jazz was under Dolby’s skin that I couldn’t see at the time of his first album. At his two concerts I attended this year, that was the thing that struck me in his playing; particularly at his Moogfest performance. Hearing this album now, it all makes sense that I couldn’t have parsed, or even appreciated at the time of its release. In 1984 I was wanting more magnificent synthpop from Dolby. Jazz was for Carmel, and that’s the way I preferred it. Now, 28 years later, I’m happy to accompany Dolby wherever he wants to go. As long as contrived, cartoony synth funk isn’t a part of it.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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5 Responses to Record Review: Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth DLX RM

  1. jsd says:

    Excellent review. The Flat Earth tour was the very first concert I ever saw and it blew my mind. Very theatrical. As a 15 year old I lapped it up. I was actually disappointed in the album for a while as it was not Wireless Pt 2. Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate it for what it is – a somewhat compromised but generally excellent album by a quickly maturing singer/songwriter. The remastering on the deluxe edition sounds fantastic.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      jsd – For sure. 28 years later, it’s hard to see that the disappointment was back then, apart from “Hyperactive!” But that was the most glaringly obvious single attempt I’d ever heard, given the context in Dolby’s career, so it really turned me off at the time. Glad you saw the tour back then. I might have even passed it up at the time, but living in Central Florida, I never had a chance. I did pass it up four years later! May I never hear “Aliens Ate My Buick!”


  2. Tim says:

    It’s nice to hear someone having something kind to say for Astronauts and Heretics era Dolby. I think A&H is one of his stronger efforts and in my opinion his best since TGAoW. I don’t think that there’s anything on there where he is trying to score another “Blinded By Science” or “Hyperactive” (or even sub-hit “Airhead”), just one good song after another after another. A lot of the olde guard of the New Wave were defunct or releasing thoroughly lackluster albums at that time (New Order’s “Republic” anyone?) and I was at the time genuinely pleased with his album and wishing that he would do this sort of thing more often. I had a lot of trepidation listening to it because the last “song” that I had heard from him was on the soundtrack to “Toys” and it seemed there that he was content to still head in the SBMWS direction than the tone of his work with Prefab Sprout.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – Total agreement on the many merits of A+H. Quite frankly, I thought the idea of a “sequel” to “Europa” was pretty shaky ground, but I have to admit that I simply loved “Eastern Bloc!” Eddie Van Halen or not! It’s just a super solid collection of music. Even the Grateful Dead [Garcia + Weir] show up and the results don’t bore me to tears! I was more than pleased to hear that 20 years later, “A Map Of The Floating City” was a very capable continuation of the level of songwriting and vibe of A+H.

      So right about New Order. I bought “Regret” and just stopped dead with that band. After buying everything from 1981 onward. Haven’t missed them since. I never heard the Dolby “Toys” song [checks online]. It features Robin Williams and Joan Cusack? Ugh! It seems ghastly. The one thing I couldn’t figure out about A+H was Dolby’s incredibly contrived image in the booklet photo. What was he smoking? How does “goth vampire” fit that music?


  3. Brian Ware says:

    Yes, a most excellent review Mr. Monk. The Dolby song from “Toys” is called “The Mirror Song” and it’s not bad at all. As a matter of fact a certain Mr. Trevor Horn wrote it! It was credited to “Steve and Yolanda” who I think were Robin Williams and Joan Cusack’s characters. Check it out.


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