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 here.


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: Rusty Belle – On a Full Moon Weekend

Hi again…

Music doesn’t have to be complicated. Far too often I listen to a song on the radio and wonder how much of it was engineered compared to how much was performed. When the electronics overwhelm the instruments and voices, sometimes it’s time to reexamine the music-making process.

Enter the simplicity of Rusty Belle, with a vibe that is difficult to nail down. It’s at times folksy, at times dramatic, and at times it seems they’d feel at home in a saloon somewhere in the late 1800s. But that’s part of their charm.

Comprised of brother and sister Matt (vocals, guitar, fiddle) and Kate Lorenz (vocals, washboard, glockenspiel, drums), Zak Trojano (vocals, guitars, drums), and Jazer Giles (keyboards, guitar, vocals), the group has recorded five albums as a quartet since 2006, with their latest being On a Full Moon Weekend. But again, it’s impossible to pin them down – there’s some country, some honky-tonk, dramatic folk, blues, even a bit of rock. The closest I can come to naming a similar artist is Mark Knopfler, but that only fits a handful of their songs.

What’s consistent throughout the album is the fact that the arrangements, voices, harmonies, and instrumental performances are real. Real people are singing. Real people are playing. And there are real emotions in every note of the eight songs on On a Full Moon Weekend.

One of my favorite tracks is “Rearview Mirror Sunrise” – the very first song on the CD. The subdued, mellow guitar intro strums into some simply gorgeous melodies. But once you listen to the words, you hear the story of two lovers on the road, working the memories from the drive into their relationship. Things as simple as stopping on the side of the road when it starts to snow – “catching the snow flakes one by one on our outstretched laughing tongues, the world feels fresh and new and young, I want to bring it all into my love…”

“Off and On” is another of my favorites and the one that seems to have a Knopfler feel to it. I can’t shake the mental image of this small band playing in the corner of a saloon in the wild west with their twang and caliope/merry-go-round feel. And by the time the steel guitar kicks in, I’m already sold on the picture of cowboys dancing with barmaids on the saloon floor.

When the drums and blues guitar of “Borderline Affair” enter the scene, I can’t figure out how a blues vibe and saloon band are working together, but damn – it works. “Don’t try to tell me nothing no / Don’t cheat me baby I love you so / It’s hard to see the world from this low; so come back to me as flies the crow…” The head barmaid is telling her beau not to treat her wrong or she may be tempted into someone else’s arms…

I’ve never heard anything quite like Rusty Belle. It defies categorization – and yet I enjoyed every note of On a Full Moon Weekend. If you are looking for something different, please give them a listen!

This article first appeared at here.


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Music Review: Chris Smither – Time Stands Still

I’m stunned…

After all these years, how could I have missed Chris Smither‘s music? Time Stands Still is Smither’s eleventh album in a career spanning four decades – a lifetime of playing live and playing music. And he’s still going strong!

I’d compare him to Bob Dylan, Peter Mulvey or Mark Knopfler style-wise, with a combination of storyteller and amazing guitarist rolled into a single package. And this album is no different, merging his acoustic guitar licks with a blues sensibility and his emotive, grainy voice. The feeling is in each and every guitar lick and each and every note to leave his throat.

Time Stands Still‘s intimate session was recorded in only three days and its songs ponder time’s mysteries. Included are eight original compositions and a song each from Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, and 1920s country-blues songster Frank Hutchinson. Recorded with producer and guitarist David “Goody” Goodrich and drummer Zak Trojano, this stripped-down recording session presents these folksy blues songs as they were meant to be heard.

What blows me away is the range of not only emotion, but how he assembles these songs. They’re simple arrangements, sure, but deep just the same with layered qualities found in those artists who know their fans and themselves very well. The lyrics are expressions of Smither’s view of the world, from the way people are dealing with the world’s current economic troubles to dealing with being the parent of an adopted daughter.

I absolutely love “Surprise, Surprise” with its unique guitar groove and almost sarcastic take on our economic slowdown. “Are you worried ’bout your money? ‘course you are – who wouldn’t be? you thought that you were rich and then you turned on your TV…” There’s truth there with a tongue-in-cheek attitude like you’re being scolded a bit and should have known better.

And “I Told You So” with its amazing guitar work and a touch of parenthood… “Where you as big as you are now when I was born? I been this big a long time, that’s why my face is worn / But were you ever little, and if so where was I? Yes I was, but you weren’t anywhere or anywhy…” The questions of a child that never stop. What’s the dumbest question? “The dumbest one’s the one you never ask of me.” This one hit me as a father who knows “I Don’t Know” is often the best answer to the best intended question.

One of my other favorites is Smither’s version of Knopfler’s “Madame Geneva’s”. I love the original, but have to say that Smither adds a different spin – slowing it down a bit and playing up the blues aspect. Knopfler hit the nail on the head in the days of yore when the plague was high and treason was in season… “Then you’ll find me in Madame Geneva’s / keeping the demons at bay / There’s nothing like gin for drowning them in / but they’ll always be back on a hanging day, on a hanging day…” Even today, I’m sure there are a few of us drowning our troubles in gin.

None of these songs sound over-engineered as I find all too often these days. Each recording highlights Smither’s world-weary, emotive voice and amazing finger-picking. Behind that, Goody adds layers with another guitar and Trojano does a great job keeping the beat and staying out of the way. If time stands still as the album title suggests, then this album gets it moving again.

If you, like me, were oblvious to the amazing musical talents of Chris Smither, then I would strongly encourage you to run out to your favorite retailer on September 29, 2009 to pick up Time Stands Still. I promise you that if you’re a folk/blues fan, you won’t be sorry. And if you already know Smither’s music, you’re ahead of the game!


p.s. Be sure to pick up this album and any of the other amazing albums available from Chris Smither at Amazon below!

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