Tuesday 14 July 2009

The Golden Age of Remastering (Thomas Dolby's first two albums reissued)

The Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth are iconic albums in 1980s electronic music and well loved by their fans. Indeed, director of Star Trek and creator of Alias JJ Abrams recently picked the former as one of his favourites. As such, they're a little overdue for some remastering. We've already had a taster of this in the form of The Singular Thomas Dolby; however, being a compilation, it wasn't the real gold. I believe in the album as an artistic unit: the best albums (and both of these fall into that category) feel like a set of songs that belong together, in that order, and have a flow between them. Fortunately the gold has now come in two releases, originally slated for a couple of months back. They are well worth the wait. (Before going any further, I must note this review has a shameless plugs tag, meaning there is a conflict of interest, owing to the fact that Mr Dolby is my uncle. Actually, I should probably add one more disclaimer: this review is rather long, and somewhat nerdy in its detail; for those new to Dolby, the abridged version is that these are two classics and if you haven't heard them you should. Thanks to Spotify you can sample both before you buy.)

It's impressive when a remaster can give that buzz of almost hearing something again for the first time. The Golden Age of Wireless does. That moment came for me with the introduction of track six which had me wondering what on earth the song was, I didn't recognise it at all. And then I remembered, this was The Wreck of The Fairchild; I haven't listened to it in years because I only have it on vinyl and I don't have a record player in my hi-fi at the moment. Not only finally restored to the album (it has been notable in its absence from previous CD issues) but in its correct order. This was something I moaned about to Dolby a good couple of years ago. That's right, not only did the previous CD contain two tracks that weren't on the vinyl (She Blinded me with Science and One of Our Submarines) but this was compounded by the tracks being in the wrong order. The old issue ran as follows:

  1. She Blinded me with Science

  2. Radio Silence

  3. Airwaves

  4. Flying North

  5. Weightless

  6. Europa and the Pirate Twins

  7. Windpower

  8. Commercial Breakup

  9. One of Our Submarines

  10. Cloudburst at Shingle Street

The new issue (or, rather, the original album) runs:

  1. Flying North

  2. Commercial Breakup

  3. Weightless

  4. Europa and the Pirate Twins

  5. Windpower

  6. The Wreck of the Fairchild

  7. Airwaves

  8. Radio Silence

  9. Cloudburst at Shingle Street

Now, this may sound silly, but Wireless is probably the least frequently played of the Dolby albums in my flat, and I have them all. Listening to the remaster I am baffled as to why. It's true the sound is better, but it feels like an album now in a way that it didn't before. I now better understand why it is so loved. In case anyone is feeling short changed, though, there is no need to worry: the album is loaded with a further ten tracks, but they're where they should be (at the end) and we'll come to them later.

Otherwise, it's the same songs fans will know and love - from the propulsive Flying North (a reference to the fact planes head north initially after takeoff), through Europa and the Pirate Twins (a love song like no other I know), to the astonishing vividness of Cloudburst at Shingle Street (which captures the bleak Suffolk coast so magically). But even tracks I love less, such as Commercial Breakup or Airwaves, just sound better when they're in the right place.

As with The Singular Thomas Dolby, the sound is significantly better (it is not clear if these are the same masters - the track lengths are quite different in some cases, Airwaves running nearly two minutes longer this time round). I can't really improve much on my comments last time:

Sound quality is definitely improved and if not quite a night and day difference (the previous versions were, after all, pretty decent to begin with), certainly cleaner, crisper and richer; the sound is much more open and less compressed. They have not been comprehensively remixed in the manner of, say, The Sole Inhabitant tour (where may of the textures are often totally new or changed). For those of a hi-fi persuasion this will make it worth acquiring. If you're not bothered by such things, you may not notice.

Occasionally I would notice details that haven't really jumped out at me before. However, it is the cleanness and openness of the sound that stands out. We have got much better at making CDs sound good over the last decade or so. Credit then to Peter Mew for his very fine work on these (supervised by Dolby himself). Remastering isn't simply pushing a button, it's an art and it can be done very badly and very well, fortunately this is a example of the latter.

So, what of the extras? Well, some are superb, requiring little by way of elaboration (the two 'extra' songs from the previous issue, She Blinded me with Science and One of our Submarines, are both there, and complimented by Leipzig and Urges). Others fall much more firmly into the curiosities category and are probably of interest mainly to hardcore fans - the rather different sounding Radio Silence (Guitar Version) and Airwaves (demo) are prime examples. To be honest, a little like the alternate takes that jazz albums overflow with these days, one does slightly wonder what the point was (there's usually a pretty good reason the released version was the released version; Airwaves, I'm looking at you).

The remaining four are much more interesting. They're early demo songs which have rarely before seen the light of day, and never on CD. Of course, as before, there is often some reason for this. Urban Trial is perhaps the finest. It has its origins in some studio time which yielded Magic's Wand (part of Dolby's early career in keep fit videos I was hitherto not aware of). The song was, however, written with the intent of being rejected so he got to keep the master. Certainly, it has an emotive pull to it and the strongest lyrics of any of these 'new' songs (listen out for Dolby's eldest daughter Harper providing a vocal harmony in the second verse, an addition for the release). Therapy/Growth (demo) is another briskly written and recorded effort for a studio demo. It is dreamy, but I don't think the orientally styled melody quite works. Perhaps the most interesting is Sale of the Century (demo). If its tune is familiar, this is because it would eventually become The Wreck of the Fairchild. As Dolby himself says in the sleeve notes, he wasn't happy with the lyrics, and ditching them was certainly a good call (though they are oddly topical a few decades later in light of the financial crisis). It should also be noted that the sound quality of this one is pretty poor, especially in comparison to the rest (a very compressed sound). Lastly, there's the brief Pedestrian Walkway (demo). Originally written for Trevor Herion (whose name is new to me) of The Fallout Club, in a single verse it has a few people walking along the pavement. I'm afraid it's a little lost on me. It's rather too off the wall and I think I'll refrain from speculating on what might have been consumed prior to its composition. Not essential for everyone then; still, for a completist like me, they're gold.

The booklet doesn't recreate the LP entirely, mostly in its removal of the lyrics. However, these can be found on Dolby's website. The website also provides a further four audio tracks that wouldn't fit onto the CD (you have to register for the forum, but that's fairly painless and doesn't result in you getting peppered with spam or anything). Live versions of Commercial Breakup and Urges (the latter being a little raunchier than we're used to) are good to have, though the sound is a little poor. Then there's a demo of Flying North, which is actually the most interesting of the demos as it provides an excellent illustration of just what a difference getting the right sounds makes and how key those textures are to the genius of Dolby's music. Lastly, we get The Fallout Club's version of Pedestrian Walkway, which is much longer and works better, though the song still doesn't entirely grab me. The MP3s are at a fairly low bit rate (just 192 kbps), but given the quality of the source material, this probably doesn't matter too much.

But wait, there's more, yes, even more. In fact, a whole disc more. Indeed, a whole DVD more, which contains Live Wireless. This video was made in 1983 and was filmed before a live audience (though it probably counts as live-ish rather than being a properly live gig), the songs being linked together by another, rather apathetic, Dolby in the projection room. In addition to many of the songs from the studio album, we also get a number other songs, including Urban Tribal, mentioned above. We also get New Toy, written for Lene Lovich (who appears for it, and with whom he also performed it on tour a couple of years back). Perhaps the most interesting of these curiosities is Jungle Line, a cover of a Joni Mitchell song, and complete with throbbing tribal drums (Dolby would later co-produce her album Dog Eat Dog). I have a horrible feeling that Puppet Theatre may be the kind of song, especially thanks to it's repeated refrain of "one more night in the puppet theatre", likely to get stuck in my head. Lastly there's a quite good duet with Kevin Armstrong in Samson and Delilah. All in all, it's a most enjoyable hour (and the only available recording of Dolby doing some of these songs). To be honest, they could have got away with selling this on its own, so to bundle it in with the CD at regular price represents fantastic value.

There is one small blemish, some utter fool somewhere at EMI (who should be given a severe talking to by his manager at the earliest convenience), has, as the more eagle-eyed reader will have noticed, blemished the otherwise pristinely restored cover art with a great white square (which appears to be a German notice that this DVD is suitable for all ages). Thanks. Still, based on the paragraphs above (and given this disc will spend most of its time on the shelf, and thus with that part invisible), it could be worse: the music is what matters. The only people stupider than the guy at EMI are the people over at Amazon who are marking the set down to one or two stars based on this alone! Apparently it makes it less of a "collector's edition". (Of course, I dislike phrases like that anyway, which is why I've avoided it. Actually, since they'll likely fix this on future pressings, it probably makes it more collectable.) They're one of the many kinds of people Rob would justifiably sling out of his record store in High Fidelity. Anyway, the cover should have looked like this:

In general, though, it's beautiful. For example, the rear cover of the booklet gives one of my favourite pieces album art (as Dolby noted on twitter, fans who are really upset about the white box can always reverse the booklet):

For me, however, the real treat is The Flat Earth, for years one of my favourite albums. It's never sounded quite so good and, even better, this isn't scarred by age certification logos:

Less needed to be done here, in that the CD has always had the right tracks, in the right order. What makes it so special though? Obviously, in these days of CDs and MP3s, the distinction is slightly meaningless, but for starters it has one of the most fantastic A sides of any album: Dissidents, The Flat Earth and Screen Kiss. These three songs compliment and flow into one and other just perfectly. They all have great tunes, beautiful textures and wonderful lyrics. What's all the more interesting is that Dolby reveals in his liner notes that these were originally planned to be separate singles - it doesn't sound that way. I love "I can't read my writing, my own writing!" in Dissidents, very likely because I often can't. The Flat Earth is beautiful, or at least, so one thinks until Screen Kiss, a heartfelt love song that never fails to grab me.

Then the album flips and the B side contains my only reservation: Hyperactive, which didn't always feel to me quite like it fit on the album. Except that none of the B side tracks quite fit, and yet, by that very quality, they do. There is the frantic White City, followed by Mulu the Rain Forrest, which has possibly benefited most from the facelift (the pipes and other textures just sound incredible). Then there's the quirky I Scare Myself (originally by Dan Hicks and featuring Pete Thoms' trombone - not often you get that on a pop record) before closing with Hyperactive, his biggest UK hit, and originally intended for Michael Jackson.

It's brilliant. If you love this album half as much as I do, you should get this reissue; if you've never heard it before (and I suspect that's unlikely if you've read this far), then what on earth are you waiting for? This probably sounds overly sycophantic, but it's just how I feel at having one of the treasures of my CD collection so loving restored.

Of course, as with Wireless, we get more than the original album. First up is Get Out of My Mix which, as the name implies, is a mix that samples heavily from his work (it's a cut down version of one of the tracks on the 12x12 CD of Dolby remixes). Then there's Puppet Theater, which appeared on the Live Wireless DVD, though sounding better in the studio version. Dissidents (The Search for Truth Part I), to some extent an extended remix, though there's rather more to it than that, especially the lovely moment reminiscent of Gregorian chanting, is a welcome bonus (it too is known from the 12x12 album). We also get Field Work, Dolby's collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, which I was first introduced to via The Singular Thomas Dolby. Like so many of his songs, it has a strong narrative and has grown on me more and more as I've listened. The sonic contrast in those transitions where everything drops out save the drums is superb.

These are followed by a couple of nuggets from his work on film scores. Don't Turn Away hails from Howard the Duck, which I dimly recall watching along with a number of my cousins many years ago. It wasn't a memorable film but the song isn't bad, though it's rather more mainstream than typical for Dolby, and rather too cheesy film score in nature. This is followed by The Devil is an Englishman from the film Gothic (which I don't think I've ever seen). It's a wonderfully quirky song, and one that would have fitted in perfectly on Aliens Ate My Buick. It sounds like this film was a much better fit for Dolby (I may have to see it). Lastly we get live versions of I Scare Myself and Marseille. The latter is another song I've never come across before and it's probably my favourite amongst the 'new' material. Great textures, a catchy tune and decent lyrics.

The sound of all the bonuses is, unlike for Wireless, uniformly excellent. This is probably as a result of having had better source material to work with.

But wait, there's still more. As with Wireless, Dolby's website contains both the lyrics and some bonus tracks for download. We get an alternate version of Puppet Theatre (a little more laid back and with softer textures), followed by live versions of I Scare Myself (apparently a different one to that included on the CD), Dissidents and New Toy (the latter also featuring on Live Wireless). And, to round it all off, is the lecture. A fun track from a live show, essentially White City, preceded by a brief lecture 'explaining' why the world is flat.

In short, this is remastering the way it should be done: these discs have never sounded so good. They have provided a lot of great listening and will now provide many hours more - I don't think I'll be filing them away on my shelves just yet. So good is the technical job done that Peter Mew deserves one of our irregular awards. He is the first recipient, but in giving it I realise that, had we been around then, Mark Wilder would have got one for his work on Sony's Miles Davis reissues. Therefore, both get our first jointly named award: The Peter Mew and Mark Wilder Award for Audio Remastering that Genuinely and Significantly Adds to and Improves upon Previous Releases. Now, perhaps Mr Mew would like to turn his attention to the other two albums.....

Update - 16/7/09

Post from Dolby on his website clarifying the 'white box' issue. Appears it wasn't as simple as an idiot at EMI doing something idiotic, but rather a whole silly system.


Flopsy T. Hamster said...

Great reviews! Can't wait to get the two packages!

A couple of corrections, though. The white box on the cover of the GOAW is actually a German ratings certificate, indicating that the DVD is suitable for all ages - though I assume the DVD is Region 0. Also, the movie that "The Devil Is An Englishman" is from is actually called "Gothic", and not "Gothica". If you do actually want to see this movie, beware of versions you may find in the DVD dollar bin. At least one company believes this film is in the public domain, and has issued a low quality version mastered from a mono VHS tape.

Otherwise, I agree that anyone that refuses to buy GAOW because of the white box on the cover is a whiny baby who doesn't deserve to hear this great music, anyway.

Tam Pollard said...

Thanks for the corrections (and the info on Gothic). I've now updated the post accordingly.

blackpooltangerine said...

Great reviews and very fair,I have just received both reissues - excellent.

For many fans who didn't purchase vinyl there are many rare tunes, and the demos are great - the Flying North demo is one I hadn't heard before.

The Pedestrian Walkway demo is odd I must agree and not the demo that I have heard previously but many Dolby fans have never heard this track as it is a b-side to a Fallout Club single.

In regards Trevor Herion he worked and recorded with The Civilians,and then 3 singles as The Fallout Club (Dream Soldiers & Wonderlust with Thomas Dolby), followed by a solo album 'Beauty Life' and 4 singles taken from the LP.

Post a Comment