Thomas Dolby – A Map Of The Floating City

13 11 2011

The last Thomas Dolby studio album was Astronauts & Heretics back in 1992, so to say A Map Of The Floating City is long-awaited is a bit of an understatement.

There have been a couple of live releases and re-issues in recent years (notably the wonderful collectors edition of The Flat Earth in 2009) but the silence with regards to new music was finally broken last year with a couple of digital EP’s available from the official Dolby website.  6 of the EP tracks appear on A Map Of The Floating City.  Whilst they work perfectly well as album tracks, it’s a slight disappointment that the album is not made up of more new music, but after such a long wait, it’s only a minor complaint.

Album opener Nothing New Under The Sun kicks off with a bassline that’s vaguely reminiscent of The Jackson’s Can You Feel It, and this is the only real nod towards the 80’s on the album.

“Hey any fool can write a hit
loop me a breakbeat baby I’ll tweak it till it fits”

A wonderful rhythm guitar line from long-time Dolby collaborator Kevin Armstrong drives the song.  The Princealike dirty bubbling synths introduce Spice Train, a track that sits better on the album (as a standalone single it never really hit me).  The Eastern promise of the strings and backing vocals work well with the travelogue lyrics.

Evil Twin Brother, with it’s New York fire sirens, Shaft guitars and themed lyrics really set the scene for the song.  Much like the way I Love You Goodbye from Astronauts & Heretics, with it’s crickets and thunder gave a real cajun flavour, Evil Twin Brother gives a real feel of the at times claustrophobic New York city vibe.

“They say that New York city never sleeps
But I think they’re only talking about me
it’s 3am and ninety-five degrees.”

The album is split into three themed sections.  The final track that makes up the first section (Urbanoia) is A Jealous Thing Called Love, a lovely latin-tinged song of regret and betrayal, featuring Bruce Woolley (co-writer of Video Killed The Radio Star with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes of The Buggles) on backing vocals.

Amerikana is the second section of the album, which starts with Road To Reno.

“He was a crooked politician
she sold brassieres at Sears
he said he liked The Beatles
And she liked Tears for Fears” 

A tale of a Badlands styled road-trip, that’s never going to end with chocolates and flowers, although Mars bars get a mention in the lyrics.  The guitar has a real Dire Straits circa Communiqué era feel, which is apt as Mark Knopfler features a couple of tracks later.

The Toad Lickers is a banjo and jaw harp (from Imogen Heap) led song about  “a group of crazed eco-hippies in the Welsh mountains who get high on Bufo alvarius and creep into the local town after hours in search of munchies” according to Thomas on his website.  Glad he cleared that one up, as otherwise I’d have no idea what on earth this strange song is about. The track features backing vocals from Adele Bertei (who provided the soaring vocals on Dolby’s Hyperactive! from 1984, pop-pickers, not toad-lickers).

17 Hills is the longest track on the album, and is up there with Screen Kiss as one of my favourite Dolby songs.  Featuring the afore-mentioned Mark Knopfler on guitar, this evocative track always reminds me of the wide-open spaces of California, and the hills overlooking the urban sprawl of Los Angeles.  17 Hills features some lovely fretless bass work from Jeffrey Wash.

“The city rises on seventeen hills
seventeen hills from the Bay
The silhouette of those beautiful hills
is right at the end of this old stormdrain.” 

Love Is A Loaded Pistol ends this section of the album and is the most stripped back track, with just Dolby and a string section.  I’ll let Thomas explain the inspiration for this song:

“The idea came to me in a dream: I had a nocturnal visitation from Billie Holiday who traveled through time to give me a song lyric. Of course, I was amazed and I was overjoyed. She was in an evening gown and looking ravishing. She sat next to me and said ‘I’ve got a lyric for you.’ I said ‘Great, hit me!’ She said ‘Okay…..This time it’s love.’

I smiled awkwardly. There was a pause. Then I said ‘erm…. well it’s a bit crap, isn’t it?’ She looked dejected and asked why. I said there had to be half a dozen songs with that title over the years, not that any particular one sprang to mind. ‘Well you can make it cool, right?’ Suddenly the waking me got very upset with my dream me and interjected some diplomacy. I mean here I was with one of the greatest singers that ever lived, and I just told her her idea was crap. I started to say something like ‘Look, I’ll try to work your lyric in….’ but it was too late. Billie was fading and I felt myself waking up…”

Oceanea is the final themed section of the album, which starts with the song of the same name.  Featuring Eddi Reader on vocals, it’s a beautiful, haunting song that even includes what sounds to me like, shock-horror, some auto-tune effects on Dolby’s vocals, not in a Cher way you understand, but just a subtle inflection on certain words. The lyrics are the most moving on the album, and Oceanea is definitely the personal highlight of the album for me.

Simone, with its theremin intro from Bruce Woolley, has a lyrical twist that I won’t give away here, and at times reminds me of Aja period Steely Dan or maybe even early Prefab Sprout (who Dolby first worked with on the Steve McQueen album in 1985).

The album ends with To The Lifeboats, with its lovely rolling drums from Pat Mastelotto and haunting acoustic guitar, sounds of the sea and a not very positive end for the subject of the song, by the sounds of things.

Hopefully the warm critical response to this album will mean there won’t be such a long wait until the next Thomas Dolby album.

Buy A Map Of The Floating City at Amazon UK

Buy The Flat Earth at Amazon UK

Buy The Golden Age of Wireless at Amazon UK

Buy The Sole Inhabitant – (+DVD) at Amazon UK

Buy Astronauts & Heretics at Amazon UK

All lyrics © Thomas Dolby

All A Map Of The Floating City videos on this page taken from the official Thomas Dolby YouTube channel.

Thomas Dolby website 

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2 responses

28 12 2011
End of Year Favourites « Mr Kinski's Music Shack

[…] Thomas Dolby – A Map Of The Floating City […]

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11 01 2012
Matt Day

Nice review. It’s such a pleasure to hear Thomas’s music again – a school friend introduced me to The Flat Earth in the mid 80’s and it blew me away. A Map of the Floating City is equally full of big musical ideas and soundscapes. Particularly like Evil Twin Brother and Oceanea. Can’t understand why I havn’t heard any of the singles on daytime radio in the UK, but their loss!

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