Thomas Dolby – A Map of the Floating City (CD review)

Thomas Dolby – A Map of the Floating City (Lost Toy People) CD review

He’s been away for 20 years, but he’s got a good excuse — he invented the technology to play ringtones on your phone.

Thomas Dolby, the man behind such hits as “She Blinded Me With Science,” left the music business in the early 90’s after his album Astronauts & Heretics was mismanaged by his then-record label.  He instead concentrated on technology, eventually helping perfect the synthesizer that allows you to play ringtones on your cellphone.  Although that bit of information might be surprising, it certainly isn’t that much of a stretch for a performer who seemed to always be several steps ahead of everyone else, especially during the early days of MTV.

Despite his techno-wizardry past, his new album, A Map of the Floating City, is surprisingly organic; eschewing the typical computer-aided trickery for a more straight-ahead approach.  But, don’t worry; the album still has plenty of twists and turns to keep his diehard fans happy.

The new album is divided into three separate parts: Urbanoia, Amerikana, and Oceanea, which were all snuck out earlier in the year to members of his web community, The Flat Earth Society.  Urbanoia opens the record and deals with Dolby’s time in the city, which he admits did not agree with him.  “Nothing New Under the Sun” features a Hammond organ and right off, you can tell that the singer hasn’t lost any of his wit as he muses “Hey, any fool can write a hit.”  The danceable “Spice Train,” with its faux-horn line, is the most electronic of the album’s tracks.  Because he used so much cutting-edge instrumentation in his early years, it’s easy to forget that underneath the synths of hits like “Europa and the Pirate Twins,” and “Hyperactive,” Dolby showed an incredible knack for telling great stories.  That trend continues with the eerie “Evil Twin Brother,” where the singer tells of wandering the streets of New York at 3am, meeting a waitress (played by Regina Spektor), and getting into trouble, while keyboards pulse accompanied by a ghostly vocal.  That gives way to the bossa nova infused “Jealous Thing Called Love,” which features a Burt Bacharach-style arrangement.

Part two of the record, Amerikana, is the singer’s tribute to his time spent in the States.  “Road to Reno,” with its acoustic strumming, plays out like a scene from Bonnie & Clyde, complete with the robbery and gunfire, while the next track, the hilarious “Toad Lickers,” contains a saloon-style piano solo and accordion (do yourself a favor and watch the youtube video that Dolby put together for that track).  “17 Hills,” a poignant song about perspective, features fine guitar work from Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits.

The final section, Oceanea, speaks of Dolby’s return to his comfortable roots in England.  It opens with a song of the same name, which is pure tranquility – soft, inviting keyboards, light guitar work, and a guest vocal from Eddi Reader, who sings in a matronly tone.  “Simone,” features a cocktail beat, African percussion, and Theremin solo.  The closing track, “To The Lifeboats” starts out with a gentle guitar before morphing into chaos in the middle, then finally resolving again in beauty.

Don’t be put off by how conceptual this might seem.  Despite wildly varying styles, A Map of the Floating City is held together by an abundance of melody, a wry sense of humor, and, great story telling.  Dolby may have taken 20 years off from the music business, but you’d never know it.  Welcome back, Thomas.   –Tony Peters