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: Wes Kirkpatrick – Naps & Nightmares

Hi again!

Discovering new artists is part of what makes my life interesting. And discovering new folk/rock artists like Wes Kirkpatrick with a Colorado connection just adds icing to the cake. I find it amusing however that it was an album he’s released after leaving Colorado that caught my attention.

Though he performed with his brother Ryan and their band The Kirkpatrick Project for several years in Colorado, Wes just released his solo debut – Naps and Nightmares – and evidently it’s true that change can be a good thing sometimes. The album explores the emotional ups and downs of leaving everything behind and starting fresh, but even with a few slower tracks it’s not all doom and gloom.

You can tell he’s been performing for a while and is comfortable with his own styles of voice and guitar. The music effortlessly drifts between blues, folk, and rock while giving it his own spin. It doesn’t hurt that backing him up is a great set of performers – Dustin Christensen (keyboards/melodic kalimba/celeste/backing vocals), Eric Ellsworth (electric guitar), Chris Hepola (drums/percussion/melodica/piano), Josh Granowski (stand-up & electric bass), Ross Nueske (electric bass), Cory Mon (backing vocals/wooden frog), Stephanie Mabey (backing vocals), Chris Becknell (violin), and Mark Smith (cello).

The album starts strong with “Vertigo,” blending some amazing bass lines behind a driving guitar melody. Nothing like the U2 song of the same name, this one talks about the feelings left after loss and the after-effects. Talking about the past and not wanting to let things go… “It’s been 9 years since I called again / now I’m still trying just to stomach it / it’s a long long ride / no end in sight…” The song builds and builds and then fades away like there’s a fight brewing and then they just walk away.

“Away From You” offers a very different feel. Less about loss and more about a romantic notion of love. This one seems like narrating a movie scene about two people on opposite schedules trying to make things work. Each time they’re together they’re learning how to love each other again ending in the same place… “I don’t want to wake up again / away from you…” Hopefully it’s less “two ships passing in the night” and more “coming together” however!

Later in the album you hear “Better Than Today,” about a relationship at the end. It’s time to move on. “I don’t care if you like what I say… / ’cause when I leave, you’re still here / the same old place year after year / I want to see the smiles of different faces / I want to see the stars from different places / and it will do no good to stay / it’ll never be better than today…” That need for change when one person doesn’t want to is tough. And living in the past gets old fast. It’s an emotional goodbye, but goodbye nonetheless.

And “Karma” ends the album with a blues song talking about a cheating woman. It’s a simple blues beat, but damn if it doesn’t work well. I absolutely love the groove, right down to slapping the keys like a wagging finger in the background behind the guitar and drums… “The crying starts and the pleading begins / how could you have done this again? / sure you were just friends…”

If you’re looking for some new music and like your folk blended with rock and blues, I’d strongly encourage you to check out Naps and Nightmares from Wes Kirkpatrick. I’m sorry he’s left Colorado, but our loss is Chicago‘s gain and I’m sure he’ll be back this way again. Check it out at Amazon and iTunes as MP3s. For more details about Wes, the album, and his tour, be sure to check out his website WesKirkpatrick.com!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Lee MacDougall – If Walls Could Talk

Hey there…

When the Beatles came to the United States in 1964 to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York, could anybody have predicted the wave of British acts going viral in America? The British Invasion brought us groups as diverse as The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, and Dusty Springfield. Now fast forward nearly 50 years. Since the invasion continues today with acts like Bobby Long coming out of London’s booming acoustic movement, could there be others waiting in the wings?

Of course there are more acts and they’re not waiting long! Lee MacDougall is the latest musician to come out of the London open mic circuit and find an audience outside the U.K. MacDougall’s link to Twilight‘s Robert Pattinson hasn’t hurt his popularity in the States either. His song “Falling in Love for the Last Time” from his self-titled EP (and on his new album) garnered a ton of attention from Twi-hards when word got out it was written for Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. But we’ll get more into that song in a bit…

The eleven-song album is If Walls Could Talk and it was just released to coincide with his U.S. tour dates with his friend Rob Hargreaves on guitar and backing vocals. Every song seems well grounded and written about relationships and life. The best part for me was the innocence and passion in each lyric, which seems very genuine. Hopefully he has better luck with the ladies than these songs suggest, considering that some of the girls in the songs seem to lie, cheat, and lead him on every other verse!

It was when I hit the second song on the album – “She” – that I found myself really engaged. On the surface, it’s about a girl who has self-esteem issues due to an abusive father. “She’s beautiful I know / but she doesn’t know / she can’t shake her heartache / her teenage dream has gone to waste / She’s beautiful I know / but she doesn’t know that’s the case…” He wants to get her out of the house and is willing to put himself in harm’s way to do just that. But the upbeat, almost happy beat and guitar strums neatly obfuscate the tragic story in the words.

A few songs later is “Falling In Love for the Last Time” and I can see why it might have been adopted by the Twilight community as Bella & Edward’s love song. It’s a warped love story about a girl the singer can’t have even though he’s in love with her and she knows it. She uses that little fact to torture him a bit. “I want to tell you a tale about a mess that I’m in / and it all starts with a girl / and she’s breaking up my world / she’s got these big green eyes and they’re as wide as the moon / yeah they can take you to bed without ya leaving the room / I would kill just to be her man / she’s too cool to give a damn…” With a lazy, walking beat on a snare and a few strums on a guitar, you’re drawn into the story.

And before the end of the album, he explores more self-esteem issues in “This is My Story.” “Flatter me and I will be yours forever / get too close and I’ll run…” It’s a classic tale of that person who attracts all the attention but doesn’t feel comfortable in his own skin. “This is my story who knows how it ends / each page a memory of lovers and friends / always a dreamer my life has no plan / I know I’m not perfect / my mum says that I am…” Hasn’t everyone been here?

The arrangements are straightforward with mixes of guitar, piano, and drums. But it’s the lyrics that really captured my attention. The stories woven into poetry and sung with such conviction. That conviction should make him an instant favorite with anyone who loves a good love song. The ability to convey such an emotional connection with each song will go a long way to win MacDougall more than a few hearts on his current U.S. tour.

For more information about Lee, his music, or his tour, be sure to check out his homepage at LeeMacDougallMusic.com. I look forward to hearing more from MacDougall in the future! The album is currently only available on his tour, but hopefully a few tracks will find their way onto iTunes soon.

(This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.)

–Fitz

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