After years of session work and part-time employment with Lene Lovich, Bruce Woolley & the Camera Club, Thompson Twins, Foreigner and Joan Armatrading, Thomas Dolby helped revitalize a largely moribund and redundant synth-pop scene with his own recordings. The Golden Age of Wireless avoids the usual tactical error and gives the songs prominence over the instruments. Besides demonstrating an unfailing flair for sharp, snappy compositions, Dolby shows himself unusually capable of getting warm, touching feeling out of his synthesizers and his voice, creating an evocative sound that magnificently straddles nostalgia and futurism.
Although his first album contains some really lovely tunes (“Radio Silence,” “Europa and the Pirate Twins”), Dolby followed it with the insufferable “She Blinded Me With Science” (evidently written about his archaeologist father), which became a Top 5 hit. The album was reissued with that song appended, followed by a five-cut mini-album, combining it with three LP tracks and another lovely new song, “One of Our Submarines,” subsequently appended to the album for its third American iteration. (The fourth was an audiohile edition, followed later by a CD.)
After that success, Dolby worked on outside projects, producing tracks for Whodini and others before getting around to making a new LP of his own. The Flat Earth contains nothing really memorable, but does feature nicely restrained pieces of inviting atmospheric charm (including “The Flat Earth” and “Screen Kiss”). Unfortunately, it also contains the strident “Hyperactive!”
Dolby then put his pop career on hold. He did film soundtracks, collaborated with Ryuichi Sakamoto on an EP, played on Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven on Earth and co-produced and played on albums by George Clinton (Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends), Joni Mitchell (Dog Eat Dog) and Prefab Sprout. In cinema land, Dolby wrote, performed and produced five unexceptional rock songs for George Lucas’ misbegotten mega-flop Howard the Duck, filling one side of the soundtrack album. (The other is a John Barry score.) For Ken Russell’s equally atrocious Gothic, Dolby composed and performed (on Fairlight) appropriately menacing and dramatic accompaniment, actually using a real orchestra on five of the brief selections.
Aliens Ate My Buick, the long-awaited follow-up to The Flat Earth, suggests that the now-LA-based musical artist (married to an American TV actress) may be a little out of touch with the real world. The obnoxiously overcrowded ’40s swing of “The Key to Her Ferrari” is only the most obvious self-important gaffe here; other lengthy tracks like “Airhead” and “Hot Sauce” are production-driven dance-rock creations with smarmy lyrics. “My Brain Is Like a Sieve” touches on reggae to no avail; “The Ability to Swing” announces Dolby’s shortcomings in the music noir area; “Budapest by Blimp” is every bit as silly as the title would suggest.
Dolby largely jettisoned the insufferable whimsy of Aliens Ate My Buick on Astronauts & Heretics, returning to the adult contemporary atmospherics of The Flat Earth. If he sometimes sounds like Bruce Hornsby, at least he’s not begging for a beatdown. Striving to balance solid songs with his need to be the cleverest boy in class, Dolby is back within striking range of the formula that made his early work popular. But while nearly all the tracks here are solid, they aren’t special. Eddie Van Halen guests on a wholly unnecessary sequel to “Europa and the Pirate Twins,” while Eddi Reader enlivens “Cruel.” Astronauts & Heretics is a good album, but too late to rescue Dolby from the public purgatory of being an ’80s one-hit wonder.
He subsequently again turned his back on pop for multimedia projects and soundtrack composition, masterminding The Gate to the Mind’s Eye, a musical and computer animation opus, back when such projects still seemed revolutionary and not just something to be endured at every student short film festival at the local university. Typical of such once-mindbending innovation, the passage of very little time has rendered it quaint and naïve. The music for the digital freakout is adequate for what it is but unlikely to inspire many repeat listenings; the entire project now comes off as a dated mating of Laserium and Tron.
Retrospectacle is a best-of which actually serves an important function for fans, as it marks the only digital appearance of “Leipzig” and “Urges,” the two excellent songs bumped from Wireless to make room for “One of Our Submarines” and “She Blinded Me With Science.” (Unfortunately, the superior original version of “Radio Silence” which was replaced by a hideously wrong-headed remake on the re-release of Wireless remains vinyl-only). Hyperactive is another best-of, which seems pointless, since Dolby had released no new music since the one before it. 12 X 12 and One of Our Submarines are remix discs featuring work from the likes of Ricardo Villalobos and Hardfloor, and are actually the most interesting thing released under Dolby’s name since Wireless. Forty is a live greatest hits collection that perversely doesn’t include “She Blinded Me With Science.”