tethers we were born in

Here’s an interesting thing: I’ve been blogging since 2003…and maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of my posts have addressed music to some degree. Of all the musicians I’ve addressed in my posts, which one has drawn the most e-mail…which one generates, maybe once or twice a year, an out-of-the-blue e-mail asking me if I can provide a copy of the tracks described therein? The one on Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age of Wireless and a hypothetical compilation of the tracks on its various versions. In fact, just a few days ago I got an e-mail asking me for those tracks. I was all set to note these facts and wonder why the hell Dolby, or his label(s), or whoever, couldn’t get their act together and release the album in proper form…but semi-miraculously, such a reissue is about to come to be.

Later this month, expanded versions of Dolby’s first two albums, The Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth, are set to be reissued in two-disc versions, with the second disc in each case being a DVD and the first disc consisting of the original album release plus contemporary bonus tracks. Alas, according to this Wikipedia entry, the Wireless expanded tracks are not the longer versions heard on the Blinded by Science EP (except for “Airwaves,” which was truncated in its US release). That’s the less-than-good news in the good news. The better news is that it’s possible those versions will be made available for download, as Dolby notes in his blog. I do hope so…because of those EP versions, “She Blinded Me with Science,” “Flying North,” and particularly “One of Our Submarines” are definitive. I regard the shorter versions as truncations, rather than the longer versions as expansions. “Windpower” I’m a bit more indifferent to…and the new version does restore “Airwaves” to its original length.

Dolby is generally regarded as a synth-pop musician…and there’s really no arguing that description, but what many miss is Dolby’s unusual accomplishment within this genre. Synths have always been curiously coded, on the one hand as “cold” and mechanical and yet forming the core of most dance music – the most embodied and physical of genres – since at least the early ’80s. But what they’re rarely associated with is warmth…and Dolby managed to use synthesizers to create, essentially, a highly textured singer-songwriter’s world, in a more abstract, post-modernist mode compared to the more traditional confessional singer-songwriter style. (It is not at all surprising that Dolby reveres, and covered, Joni Mitchell.) Partly this is a matter of composition: analyze even the most seemingly direct of Dolby’s songs (say, “She Blinded Me with Science”) and you’ll run into a number of rather sophisticated, almost jazz-like chordal voicings. It’s also his lyrics: at his best (which he was on these first two albums) Dolby achieved a wonderful songwriterly poetics, in which compression is yoked with striking and effective figuration, to create emotive lyrics that were not quite nailed down to clumsy specifics but which were resonant and specific enough to avoid becoming the lyrical equivalent of cotton candy.

It is, therefore, a bit of mystery how Dolby managed to fall so far off the rails. “She Blinded Me with Science” is funky, direct, humorous, and (obviously) a hit single, and “Hyperactive” (from The Flat Earth) more so (except for the “hit single” part, which fell a bit shorter)…but Dolby seemed to lose his nerve, or his interest, and Aliens Ate My Buick was stunningly shallow, compared with his first two albums. “Airhead” was disposable if catchy…and even though I really should re-listen to that album, I remember at the time it seemed a complete sell-out in an almost classical sense: eccentric, talented British musician achieves success with quirky but catchy song, moves to LA, marries starlet, does soundtrack for abominable films, puts out crappy synth-funk album… As I implied, I haven’t listened to much of that album for years…but in memory, looking over the track listing, some of it’s probably better than I remembered. And the follow-up, Astronauts & Heretics, was a bit of return to form…except that it suffered from a common late-eighties problem: the synths were, paradoxically, sonically wealthier but more artificial. (My brief take on synth evolution: sometime in the eighties, synths became both more naturalistic and highly artificial: the first quality was a result of complexity of waveform, while the second was a result of the general trend toward way-overloading treble frequencies in the eighties, to the extent of creating positive ear-weariness: everything was mega-treble in the eighties: not just synths, but percussion, guitars, even bass. It didn’t help that, at the onset of the CD era, a lot of older titles were transferred to CD without taking into account RIAA equalization, and as a result were ultra-trebley, harsh, and brittle…and in an example of some sort of Murphy’s Law of sound (wherein any accidental sonic artifact is reproduced intentionally), that harsh brightness came to define the eighties synth sound.)

Back to Dolby: I said earlier that Dolby seemed to lose interest in his recording career. His lack of output since that time speaks to this…and of course, he became very involved in various software-related ventures (and, it seems, made a load of money in the same) – but the last few years have seen his interest in music re-emerging, so that the reissue of these first two albums (along with a collection of his singles) constitutes a run-up to an actual new release, forthcoming later this year.

Here’s hoping the new music fulfills the promise of his talent and that that talent hasn’t diminished over the rather many years since his early musical career peak.

(PS: When I moved this blog over to WordPress, one reason was because of this unannounced Blogger policy. At the time, none of my entries had been disappeared…but sure enough, the Dolby entry referenced above no longer exists at my old blogspot.com URL…even though its surrounding entries, with no mp3s, do. Fucking bastards. No notification whatsoever, of course.)

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “tethers we were born in

  1. Nitpick: RIAA equalization isn’t the issue, because it would never get printed to the master tape. Sometimes people deliberately boosted the treble while mixing with the idea that vinyl (or cassette) would roll it off, but this would have been a lot less than the RIAA curve.

    I’m not completely convinced this was either a common or effective practice. I recently listened to my CD of Aztec Camera’s High Land, Hard Rain. It was quite thin and trebly, so I thought, “hm, must be one of those CDs,” and, mindful of your previous post, pulled out the vinyl. It turned out to also be quite thin and trebly. Maybe a little less so, but not enough to prevent the first loud pop from sending me back to the CD.

    Still a great record, though…

  2. Nitpick accepted. Your second paragraph speaks to the issue I was talking about wherein treble was highly emphasized in the ’80s. That trend coincided with the birth of CDs: whether that was because someone thought wow, let’s show off all that shiny new high-end, or simply that CDs allowed that treble to be more prominent, I don’t know. I haven’t listened to that Aztec Camera record for ages…I may have an LP of that; I’m not even sure any more. But I do remember those acoustic guitars came with a wave of shiny, shimmery reverb, no? And someone e-mailed me, comparing the shiny guitars of early recordings by the Smiths, etc.

  3. Your explanations are plausible, and I can think of a few other possibilities:

    –change in monitoring technology
    –increased hearing loss by artists and engineers
    –increased cocaine use by artists and engineers
    –just plain old random fashion (clothing also got brighter at the same time)

    WRT Dolby, all I have is the Blinded By Science EP (on vinyl). I would like it a lot if he were a better singer. (I know, I should talk…)

  4. B

    I’ve got on at length before about how much I adore Dolby’s work as a producer — especially on Prefab Sprout’s Jordan: The Comeback. Every song has a completely unique sonic palette, and nothing sounds “out of the box”. It’s really a brilliant use of synthesizers, and the sensitivity to the details of the songwriting is just stunning. To have that kind of command over the color and texture of the instruments, but also the ear for the heart and craft of the songwriting, makes it a real landmark in record production as far as i’m concerned!
    I’m glad to hear about the new reissues of his own records, too — it will be fun to revisit those unfairly overlooked gems.
    I also just found out that it’s Dolby, under an assumed name, providing all the keyboard fun on Def Leppard’s Pyromania!

  5. And on Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You”! I think Dolby’s not half-bad a singer – at times he pushes his voice, but I think his voice is an effective vehicle for his songs and lyrics. But singing’s a sensitive thing: there’s probably no aspect of a song that’s likelier to make someone either love it or be unable to listen to it. For me: many singers tend to get better over time – then there’s Billy Corgan, who began as more or less tolerable but by the time of his band’s biggest fame was utterly unlistenable (again, this is my take). I don’t care for much of their music…but even when it’s fairly intriguing, I can’t listen to the band – because of Corgan’s ungodly awful squawk.

  6. There are definitely people who sing worse who bother me less. I think it’s the conflict between the immaculate soundscapes and the strained, sometimes noticeably out-of-tune vocals that bugs me. His music needs a more technical singer.

    Add Lene Lovich’s “New Toy” to the production/sideman credits, but Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog to the debits.

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