Friday 1 April 2011

The Where's Runnicles Album of the Week - Thomas Dolby's Oceanea

This week's Album of the Week is even more of a misnomer than usual. In the first place, it's been far more than a week since I last did one (that much is normal), and in the second this isn't an album, but rather a three track EP; still, it's sufficiently great that it deserves inclusion all the same. It's also the work of Thomas Dolby, who happens to be my uncle, which earns this post a Shameless Plugs tag.

Dolby's last studio album, Astronauts and Heretics, was released nearly two decades ago, back in 1992, after which he spent his time working in technology in Silicon Valley, which meant a drought for those who love his music. A few years ago he moved back to the UK, more specifically to the stunningly bleak and beautiful Suffolk coast, and once again began working on music in an old lifeboat that sits in his back garden and which has been converted to a high tech, wind powered digital studio. (Which, at the very least, meant he no longer had to put up with me asking him when he might record something new whenever we met up at family gatherings.)

That album, A Map of the Floating City, is due for release this summer and, if what I've heard is anything to go by, it will be featured here shortly thereafter. Prior to the release, Dolby has been issuing EPs of thematically grouped songs from the album. The first, Amerikana, appeared last June. The second, Oceanea, was released in November. However, both were only available to members of the discussion forum on his website (which is open to all, should you wish to join). Until now that is, as Dolby has chosen to give Oceanea a commercial release. You can also hear it on Spotify before you buy, and that means I can add it to my Album of the Week playlist.

In general it shows the quieter and more meditative side of Dolby's music, something especially evident in the title track, which opens the EP. Like much of the set, it is vividly evocative of the area in which it was written. Listening to Dolby's work in studio master quality for the first time is also instructive, showcasing more clearly than I've ever heard it his mastery of constructing electronic textures. Lyrics too are, as ever, well crafted and there is a nicely judged and atmospheric electronic effect applied to the voice. Phrased as sparsely as the Suffolk coastal landscape, it features the haunting refrain "I stumble home to Oceanea" before, at the song's close, the narrator finally makes it.

It begins to bloom beautifully with the final verse:
and I'm free
I'm soaring on a thermal wind
I'm learning how to shed my skin
I made it home to Oceanea
This is followed be a reprise of the final two verses from guest vocalist Eddi Reader. The result is to accentuate them more or less perfectly. The snippets of morse code that play out the track are both a call back to his earlier Windpower and perhaps a hint forward to something more.

Simone evokes another atmosphere altogether with rhythms that feel Cuban or Caribbean, so the sea is still not so very far away. Yet we begin with the wind, which also permeates the album, and "A dustbowl spread across the praries," but only briefly, as this is the story of a trip to more exotic climes. Yet, it too feels bleak. The Simone of the title is gone, having taken just "the carkeys, not half of what he owns." This is heightened by lines such as "God tried to fax you but there was no dialtone."

Dolby also makes well judged use of acoustic instruments in addition to his sampler and synths, perhaps more so here than anywhere else on the EP, the sax of Joe Cohen being a prime example.

The EP finishes up with To the Lifeboats, possibly my favourite track, not least for the lyric "There are no fucking lifeboats." which, since Dolby rarely swears, carries the greater impact for it. Indeed, the progression in which it comes is what makes the line so powerful:
But there's no need to drown these days
Cause we've got lifeboats.
Where are the lifeboats?
There are no lifeboats.
There are no fucking lifeboats...
Which leads into the rocking "freak storm" that is necessitating escape. This is a far cry from the song's opening, contrasting dreamt of "azure blue" skies and "mirror pond" sea, the accompaniment suitably placid, with the "howling wind and rain" woken up to. This is a song, and indeed an EP, that in only a short time takes us on a very long journey.

At the end there is calm once more, yet it is of a very different kind as they are now "castaways.... drifting off the coast of France and listing sideways." As elsewhere on the EP, the more you dig, the more it feels like we really are only glimpsing part of a bigger picture: who is the Caroline for whom "It won't be very long now"?

This sense is heightened by the knowledge that the next EP, Urbanoia, will be released as part of an intricate online game. Clues already exist in the music released thus far, presumably including the morse that features at the end of Oceanea. Is there a connection between the catastrophe hinted at there, the absence of lifeboats at the end and the vial that falls in Simone. I can't wait to hear the full album, but in the meantime, and despite the hints of bigger things, Oceanea is still a complete and fulfilling experience in its own right.

Listen to the EP in full here (unless of course you live in a country without Spotify, in which case sorry). As ever, if you like the EP, I urge you to actually buy it. It can be found in the usual places such as iTunes and via CD Baby if you want an actual physical CD. However, I would recommend going direct to Dolby's website where you have the choice of either 320k MP3 or 24bit 48kHz lossless wav (a pity it's not FLAC, but easily converted to such). Dolby is to be applauded for making the tracks available in HD audio. For the actual album, though, I would suggest he tries bandcamp, as it gives many more format options.

While Dolby is my uncle, this review is based on the HD download which I bought myself (like the original MP3 release in November). Though, in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I do also own a copy of the CD which was a christmas present.


Keri said...

So who's Thomas Dobly?

Tam Pollard said...

Ooops - that's a bit of a shocking typo (now corrected - thanks).

Post a Comment