Music Review: Thomas Dolby – Oceanea EP

Hi there!

Like many of my generation, I first heard the crazed genius of Thomas Dolby with the song “She Blinded Me With Science.” Something about the synthesizer tracks, the mad scientist, and the story of love blooming with unnoticed laboratory assistant Miss Sakamoto took on a life of its own.

Over the last three decades, I learned to appreciate many other Dolby songs. From the crazed beats of “Hyperactive!” and its tale of a kid wired to a machine so he’d stop spouting “junk,” to the calmer strains of “Budapest by Blimp” and “Wind Power” speaking eloquently about letting go and drifting, these are songs in the unending soundtrack of my mind. The strings binding these varied adventures in musical space inevitably come down to telling stories mixed with infectious beats, synthesizers, and harmonies.

So did you ever wonder what happened to Dolby since he disappeared from the radio waves in the 1990s? I certainly have.

It turns out that the best place to hide is in plain sight. I think he was always a bit of a geek, tinkering with his synthesizers. In the early 1990s he founded Beatnik, Inc. and co-invented the polyphonic ring tone. Then in 2001, he became the Musical Director for the TED Conference. As a fan of the many amazing TED talks available online, I’m not surprised that he would find his way to working with other brilliant people in many fields.

And now after a prolonged break (nearly 20 years), Dolby is readying a new album. As an opening salvo, he’s releasing a three-song EP to provide a taste of what’s to come. Collaborating with Dolby is Eddi Reader’s soaring voice, offering some great duet counterpoints to Dolby’s distinct voice.

The Oceanea EP offers three songs – “Oceanea,” “Simone,” and “To the Life Boats.” After listening to Retrospectacle recently and then listening to the Oceanea EP, I was stunned because it seems like no time has passed. Where other artists may try to come back after a prolonged absence from performing and not sound that great, Dolby hasn’t dropped a beat.

Once again, it’s the stories woven into each song that raises the EP above what it might have been. It’s incredibly simple to slip back into the strange world of Dolby’s Flat Earth Society with tales of journeys. If the EP is any indication, the upcoming full album A Map of the Floating City ought to be amazing. Beyond working with Reader, Dolby also collaborated with Mark Knopfler, Regina Spektor, Natalie MacMaster, Bruce Wooley, and Imogen Heap. Honestly, he had me at “Mark Knopfler”…

With the song “Oceanea,” there’s a lightness evident in the lyrics as Dolby sings of returning home again and again, feeling the freedom of the birds, the flowers, and the wind as he recovers from some injury physical or otherwise. It’s the poetry inherent in the words as much as the airy music, with keyboards and strings evoking an almost atmospheric feel that really drives the point home. There’s a safety here in Oceanea – “and I’m free / I’m soaring on a thermal wind / learning how to shed my skin / I made it home to Oceanea…” When Reader’s voice repeats the chorus and last verse as some kind of cosmic narrator, how can you not feel relaxed and at home…

“Simone” on the other hand tells the story of a woman leaving a man not happy to let her go. The light drum taps work to give it almost a samba feel, and the keyboards make it impossible for me not to see the story unfold almost as a movie in my mind. A saxophone introduces even more of a jazzy touch, reinforcing the soundtrack feel to the story. Second guesses and details fill in the gaps as we learn more of Simone and her story. “The Airbus touches down in Cuba / Her iPod’s looping Gypsy Kings / The tradewinds lash the Caribbean / Umbrella twizzles in her drink…” A modern tale of love and loss? I’ll let you decide.

But of the three songs, my favorite is “To the Lifeboats.” To me this one is the closest to the Dolby songs I heard in the ’80s. A beautiful acoustic guitar blends with another soft beat and then swells to a rousing chorus of synthesizers and electric guitars. I’m not sure of the message here, but suspect it may be a statement about our false sense of security. “The superstitious sailors of old / refused to learn to swim / but there’s no need to drown these days / cause we’ve got lifeboats…” And then I get the impression that as he looks around, he starts to panic as the storm is blowing in because he can’t find any “f”-ing lifeboats. Leave it to Dolby do drop an F-bomb in the middle of a song. Will they be rescued as the ship flounders off the coast of France, “listing sideways” as he puts it? I just don’t know. And that’s part of the fun for me.

All of these songs tell parts of stories. Dolby leaves it to us to fill in the blanks to figure out what else occurs and add the pictures in our heads. The best storytellers let us figure out what the stories mean and let us debate among ourselves what they meant. In this day and age where things are spelled out far too often, it’s refreshing to see stories told in this way again.

If Thomas Dolby’s goal for the Oceanea EP was to whet our appetites for A Map of the Floating City, I think he succeeded. Now I can act like a little kid… “Is it done yet?” “How about now?” “Now?”

The Oceanea EP hits stores on March 28th. Definitely check it out whether you’re a Dolby fan from any time in the last 30 years or someone who’s not heard of Thomas Dolby before. If you’re the latter, I’d also recommend you check out his Retrospectacle album for some old favorites as we wait for <em>A Map of the Floating City</em> to be released!

This review first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Check out these great Thomas Dolby albums below. Look for the Oceanea EP at Amazon MP3 and on iTunes.

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Music Review: Dhana – Confessions of Lily Rogue EP

Hi all…

More than a year ago, I reviewed Taxi Doll‘s album Here and Now and loved it. I’ve always had a soft spot for electro-synth-pop and Taxi Doll scratched that itch beautifully. Now lead singer Dhana Taprogge has released a new EP of solo material called Confessions of Lily Rogue. Deeper than Here and Now, Confessions offers a slower, more reflective approach to the music and lyrics.

In this slower, solo context, Dhana’s voice provides a textured, emotive counterpoint to the contagious dance beats of her work with Taxi Doll. Don’t let that statement fool you into thinking there’s no bite here. These songs deal with the fact that relationships aren’t always wine and roses…

Love is funny. Sometimes one person loves another and that causes tension. But what happens when someone you think of as just a friend finds another lover and you find there’s a spark of jealousy there? “Not Enough” focuses on this odd kind of love affair that happens every day. “You had a thing for me, but you faltered…” and “Today, you broke a piece of me, you had to leave me for another…” Smoothly orchestrated with strings, keyboards, and a heartbeat drum beat throughout, it’s Dhana’s voice that connects the threads without being trite or overly dramatic.

The video for “Not Enough” has a trippy, kaleidoscope feel:

“Wanted” moves on with more keyboards and strings, again keeping it slow as Dhana sings of love and loss. “What you wanted / is gone…” and the person left behind is struggling. “Little pieces of broken glass / just a memory, time has passed / tiny puzzle of tears and sorrow / what you gonna do tomorrow…” where “breathing is a painful thing…” Most people I know have had those moments where love has faded away and they’re not ready to let it go. But the chorus speaks of hope – “Probably better this way / you’ve had enough / now go and make the change…”

The next song, “Low”, has a bit faster beat as Dhana sings of someone seeking to lose themselves as a friend wonders “how low / can you go / love how low / can you go…” No matter how far you run, you can’t run away from yourself. This one has another beat and melody that reminded me more of Taxi Doll’s infectious beats.

And “Feel Right” deals with that tough spot in a relationship when you want to be with someone, “but it just don’t don’t feel right.” It’s that moment when the conflicted heart pulls and pushes and your head has to step in – “my head is straight when I’m far away” but “when I’m far away I’m still wanting you / and it just don’t feel right…” But when you’re with that person, for a while you can forget things don’t feel right – eventually though, the regrets and doubts pile up.

Also included is an acoustic version of “Not Enough,” which unwinds a bit of the electronic vibe of the track in favor of a stripped down feel. Dhana’s voice comes through loud and clear and the piano and strings don’t overwhelm her at all. That said, I think I like the version with electronics a bit better with its fuller sound.

I love Taxi Doll, but have to say I was impressed with Dhana’s solo work. The EP takes her voice in different directions focused on a darker side of life than the typically upbeat electronica of her band. I think if you like Taxi Doll, you’ll love hearing Dhana’s solo work with Confessions of Lily Rogue. Though I love the EP, I’m hoping Taxi Doll will releasing great music as an ensemble for many years to come and we hear new music from them soon!

For more about Dhana’s music, visit her website at DhanaMusic.com.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Also check out Taxi Doll’s release here:

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Music Review: Fitz & The Tantrums – Songs for a Break-up, Vol. 1

Hey all…

It only seemed fitting that I’d review Fitz & The Tantrums release of Songs for a Break-up – Vol. 1. We share a nickname at the very least. And I’m sure I’ve had my share of tantrums over the years, but probably not like his!

[amazon-product align=”right”]B001UHBIVM[/amazon-product]The five songs on this EP resonate with a purity that reflects a simpler age of music. The 1960s brought us Soul music in a way America hadn’t heard before – and somehow Fitz has managed to bring back the sounds of that time while giving it his own spin.

The story goes that “It all started with a phone call.” One long night and the effort to extract a huge church organ from somewhere in L.A. led to Fitz writing “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” that very evening. The album was recorded in Fitz’s living room with this organ (purchased for a mere $50) on one lousy microphone. And it sounds awesome.

Sometimes love doesn’t work. But “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” works from the bass line that walks you into it to the Tantrums singing backgrounds to the horn section emphasizing the melody to that great organ…

“Don’t Gotta Work It Out” continues the theme of love not quite working out. “We don’t gotta work it out / ’cause no one gonna tell you where to find me / when you, you come lookin’ for me / ’cause I’ll be walking out the door before you know it and you better believe…” Fitz has broken those chains and is moving on to even the score. She’s going to miss him when he’s gone, but he doesn’t really care. Serves her right for playing the field on him.

As I worked my way through the album, I couldn’t help but hear similarities to some of the tracks from the great 1980s movie – The Commitments – that chronicled an Irish “Soul” band and had some amazing soul music throughout. Fitz, though he was born in France and later moved to Los Angeles as a kid, you can tell he has some soul running through him and honors the influences of the haydays of Motown.

This is a heck of an EP. I can’t wait to hear more from Fitz & The Tantrums and that old church organ. Songs for a Break-up, Vol. 1 is just the beginning of their soulful road. And if they can record 5 awesome songs on one lousy microphone, imagine how they sound live!

Their tour starts in September… Be sure to check them out and buy the EP!

Upcoming Fitz Shows:
9/10 – Radisson – Sacramento, CA
9/11 – Fox Theatre – Oakland, CA
9/12 – Greek Theatre – Los Angeles, CA
9/14 – The Senator Theatre – Chico, CA
9/15 – Roseland Theatre – Portand, OR
9/16 – Knitting Factory – Spokane, WA
9/17 – Marymoor Ampitheater – Redmond, WA
9/21 – House Of Blues – San Diego, CA
9/24 – Pearl-Palms Concert – Las Vegas, NV
9/25 – In The Venue – Salt Lake City, UT
9/26 – Red Rocks – Morrison, CO

–Fitz

p.s. Be sure to pick up the album at Amazon!
[amazon-product align=”left”]B001UHBIVM[/amazon-product]

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