Friday, May 24, 2013

Thomas Dolby - The Flat Earth (1984)

 Capitol Records ■ ST-12309

Released February, 1984

Produced by Thomas Dolby
Engineered by Dan Lacksman
Mixed by Mike Shipley ("Hyperactive!" mixed by Alan Douglas)




Side One:Side Two:
  1. Dissidents
  2. The Flat Earth
  3. Screen Kiss
  1. White City
  2. Mulu the Rain Forest
  3. I Scare Myself
  4. Hyperactive!
Oddly, I'd never really heard "She Blinded Me with Science", nor have I (really) even now, though it was a big hit in the decade I've spent my life unabashedly enjoying the resulting pop music from. I bought this LP as well as the Blinded by Science 12" EP/mini-album simply because I saw them for a low enough price. I'm honestly not sure at this point if they pre-dated or followed my father stuffing a copy of 1992's Astronauts and Heretics on CD into my hand while visiting a used music store. It's entirely possible they followed it--"I Love You Goodbye" is a stupendous song, on a really great album. I'd still only heard the clips of that biggest of singles though, on the commercials for 80s compilations, or on any show that was referencing it as indicative of the decade.

When I had the poll up (due to the absence of votes, I simply removed it), a single vote appeared and then disappeared, for the Blinded by Science mini-album, which I decided to sit down and listen to first. While I naturally couldn't recognize the original, I strongly suspected the version of "She Blinded Me with Science" was a 12" extended mix, and I later confirmed it was just that. Those things are difficult to pull off and it rarely happened with much success. The hooks are either beaten into the ground or so severely cropped or inverted as to become thoroughly un-catchy. This wasn't much an exception, so I didn't feel much like trying to write about not only a mini-album that was an attempt to capitalize on the now rather confused release history Dolby had built up (in his native U.K., The Golden Age of Wireless did not contain that enormous single, though the original U.S. did not either--it was initially released, instead, with tracks omitted and replaced with b-sides, in typical U.S. fashion for U.K. releases--though I still don't much understand a lot of the reasons this was and is done) but one that contained one of those mixes.


So, instead, I took out The Flat Earth and decided to let a complete album (his second, left alone for its U.S. release) represent him here as I attempt to translate the disparate elements of my record collection to all souls brave enough to tromp through them.

While I truly cannot remember whether his later album or these two records entered my hands first, I can state unequivocally that I heard Astronauts and Heretics many times, and listened to neither of these more than a handful of times after purchasing them. While I wanted to hear more of this artist I'd heard good things about, the notion that this sample-heavy semi-novelty hit was what he was known for and no album names, singles, or anything else seemed to get mentioned, I didn't have much of a hook to dive in any deeper, and guessed there was both a more "flamboyant" and a more brazenly pop bent to his earlier work that didn't immediately encourage my explorations with any great urgency.

"Dissidents" quickly erased this notion--or at least tempered it. A semi-funky bassline from Soft Boys bassist Matthew Seligman and sharply ringing guitars from Kevin Armstrong back a pseudo-paranoid, bizarre and confused set of lyrics. Dolby's voice is sliding and smooth in the verse, but as he sings "Hold it, wait a minute..." and backing singer Adele Bertei joins him, a tense edge and sharper, shorter syllables chop the song down rhythmically to match the interwoven sound of a mechanical typewriter. Twanging synth noises sound like coiled springs and keep the song wound itself, the computerized drums of Cliff Bridgen openly synthesized. It's all weird angles and pointy bits, curious and interesting, and rather catchy (indeed, later a single!).

The title track begins the run of tracks Dolby wrote alone, which continues for almost the entirety of the album, stopped only for a single track. "The Flat Earth" was actually a solid bridge to the album that would come after follow up Aliens Ate My Buick--that second follower being Astronauts and Heretics. A number of tracks on the album marry texture and atmosphere to more clear pop song backings, and "The Flat Earth" really sets that tone. Anticipatory percussion, bass-y keys and scatters of synthetic noise propose the backdrop for the thick bass tones Seligman begins to build with Bridgen's percussive tracks, Armstrong's guitar coming out through a strangled single stroke, Dolby's own keys (an acoustic piano) are free and light, though firm and clear by comparison to the others. It's a full minute and a half of introduction before Bertei returns with the added voice of Lesley Fairbairn, singing "Hold me, baby, love me, darling, believe me, honey..." in loops behind Dolby's passionate lead vocal, which clings less firmly to the rhythm of the track, spreading across it as the words and performance dictate instead. The song takes off down its own organic path, determined largely by the contrast between Seligman's rubbery bassline and Dolby's sadness-tinged piano, coming out something like a successful melding of soul ballad and dance track in a very strange way--perfectly realized by the way Dolby's voice progresses down through the line "And maybe why for me the earth is flat..." which drops downward on the latter half, but plateaus and rescues the line from being maudlin. Honestly, this may easily be my favourite track on the album. The underlying vibraphone-style percussion rounds and smooths it all out in a wonderful way that expands the whole thing past even that bass-y nudge toward movement and the piano and vocal movement toward melancholy.

"Screen Kiss", appropriate to its lyrical content, does not attempt to "rescue" itself from the tone "Flat Earth" seems to pull up from at the last moment. There's a nostalgic sort of sense to it, but it all leads somewhat inexorably toward sadness, dreams and plans dashed and lost, but not at any great speed so much as slowly leeched away. Seligman hits those piercingly bright, high notes on bass that seem to elicit the sense of a film "jazz club"--the vocal kind, and the kind not overly familiar with jazz. Guitar and synths wax and wane over the track, all acting as a sort of smooth but internally marbled surface over which Dolby lays his ever-intense vocalization--never so much melodramatic as intent. The song fades on a fuzz of overlapping recordings of women speaking and a heartbeat, dissipating as it does so fade.

Having left the first side with a mere three tracks, the second opens with the dramatic burblings of "White City" which rapidly turn to the pounding rhythms and sharp tones indicative of much of the new wave's more popular and familiar segments, layered with a sort of sci-fi synth line. An interesting fade carries off briefly before Dolby opens the verse, thick bottom end moving the song forward at a pace that feels fast after the first half, but is also noticeably deliberate. Seligman manages some great touches here and there, little fills from the bass. Dolby is less commanding of attention with his voice, the implied drug-fueled fantasy and personal isolation matched by that lockstep marching of coke-fueled energy the song conveys. Seligman's former bandmate Robyn Hitchcock appears, though, and begins to ramble madly, though in his inimitable style, quietly rumbling along beneath the track, left as the only thing to accompany a sustained note from synthesized strings.

Unusual and unique for the album--if not in general--"Mulu the Rain Forest" elicits the tone it aims to immediately. A synthesized melody is backed by insects chirping and joined by hand-drumming and the kind of woodwinds so readily associated with rainforests (accurately or not). It's lush though it is spare, carrying a sort of jungle-esque mugginess in its lethargy, thick with only quiet noises and the silent spaces somehow. It's all atmosphere, a track added up from a clear lead vocal and backing music that never seems interested into building itself into a distinctly recognizable tune or melody, nor even establishing a clear rhythm--in the sense that ambient music does, I mean. It's fascinating, and starts to dig itself in more thoroughly toward the end, when a synthesizer begins to contribute more concrete melodic lines to back the spasms of Seligman's bass playing warps.

"I Scare Myself" is the lone exception on the album to Dolby's writing credits--Armstrong and Seligman co-wrote the music to "Dissdents" with him, but the rest of the album was his. Dan Hicks' song, though, is pure cover. Like "Dissidents" and closer "Hyperactive!" it did see a single release. Something like a Central or South American flavour (toward the salsa end of things) composes the backing track's guitar flourishes and thrumming bass, a drumstick against a snare rim acting as much of the rhythmic accent. There's a shot of tension running through Dolby's piano that contradicts the clean and comfortable instruments around him. Appropriate, perhaps, in that he scares himself, I suppose! Armstrong also throws in a muted trumpet that crests the track as it builds into a more rapid pace and a more full composition that is left to fade off, never released from its underlying tensions.

I often confused myself reading the title of Dolby's major single from the album (major in his homeland, anyway), "Hyperactive!" I often find myself thinking, instead, of Robert Palmer's shockingly non-single track from 1985's Riptide of the same name (sans punctuation), which has been a long time favourite anyway. This one, though, is built on a trombone lick from Peter Thoms, which drones out bemusedly behind Dolby's duet with the returned Adele Bertei. It nudges back more toward the sensibilities of "Dissidents" than anything else, rhythmic and energetic after the relaxed tones of the tracks that come between (barring "White City", anyway). It's catchy and somewhat peculiar, paranoid and kinetic. It's a strange sort of song, yet understable as a single. Bertei carries the song on to its outro describing the rather complete set of circumstances under which Dolby is "hyperactive".

Finding that some of the album reminded me of the (admittedly later) Astronauts and Heretics and particularly the parts about it I enjoyed, as well as the discovery that the more uptempo songs were rather off-kilter was a pleasant surprise. I'm inclined to look further into the man's work for certain, and will need to track down a more reasonably tracklisted version of his debut--one that doesn't jam itself up with all those U.S. label modifications.

Dolby's a fascinating character outside his music, as a sidebar--he's involved in plenty of synthetic music creation, up to and including a rendering of Nokia's cell ringtone, as well as the tech side and creations therein, even giving TED talks, sometimes. His name, of course, is not indicative of a connection to the audio company responsible for many audio standards, though it did result in some minor legal knots between them--it's not even his real name, which is Robertson.

In any case, so long as you don't have that immediate allergy some do to electronic-based pop music, this is a really great record, I've found. Interesting as a curious exception to a lot of standing rules of the sounds that surround it, rather than being just a strong example of them.
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