Thomas Dolby’s fifth studio album, A Map of the Floating City, came out last year and it was somewhat appropriately named as you practically require a map to assess all of the influences that go into Mr. Dolby’s musical compositions these days — from blues to jazz to calypso to zydeco. He passed through the DC metro area Sunday night in support of the album in a tour that gives one an opportunity to reflect on his strengths and weaknesses over the years.
A Map of the Floating City is Dolby’s first album in 20 years, so some growth and divergence in his sound is expected. Not surprisingly, as an older artist, he is much more sedate in his composition and performance. With his first two magnificent albums — The Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth — Dolby was associated with the subgenre of music then identified as New Pop. It was bombastic and heavy on synthesizers, having grown out of the pure synth arias of the New Romantics. Producer Trevor Horn championed New Pop and his label ZTT Records supported the likes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Grace Jones.
Dolby wasn’t part of that particular roster but he could fit right alongside them with his two biggest US hits — “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive.” As you would imagine, Dolby closed his main set with those two selections, sounding wildly calm but endlessly pleasing to the ecstatic audience in the nearly sold-out room at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., Sunday night. Those songs also showcased Dolby’s strengths (as did several other songs throughout the night) — his very wry sense of humor and his impressive command of technology.
A Thomas Dolby concert indeed is an exploration of technological performance with its reliance on samples and well-produced and well-timed backing tracks. Dolby’s performance runs like clockwork in a way that would be heartily embraced by the steampunk aesthetic with which he flirts. When the sampling works, it really works well, as when Dolby resurrects UK TV scientist Magnus Pyke for the refrains of “She blinded me with SCIENCE!” At other times, it’s just a bit of a parlor trick — for example, when he calls upon Regina Spektor to speak in Russian in absentia for a new song from Floating City called “Evil Twin Brother.”
The songs on A Map of the Floating City all evoke travel and exploration across fictitious lands but songs like “Evil Twin Brother” and “Road to Reno” demonstrate Dolby’s recent penchant for making his songs perhaps bit too literal in a way that maybe he thought about them too much and still got a pretty straightforward tale out of them. The mix of Appalachian blue grass and garage pop that makes up “The Toad Lickers” is silly fun, while the catchy “Spice Train” captures flowing Middle Eastern melodies that evoke the band Blancmange, a group that built their 80s repertoire from incorporating Middle Eastern rhythms into British pop music. Dolby breaks into cabaret mode with an entertaining song inspired by Billie Holiday lyrics called “Love Is A Loaded Pistol.”
As the new material is all very well and good, it’s still the older songs that really shine, even with a more mellow Dolby at the helm. Dolby manages to sound a lot like David Byrne on “Silk Pyjamas” from the underrated Astronauts and Heretics. With the upbeat fun of “Airhead” from Aliens Ate My Buick, Dolby thumbs his nose at the vain and vacuous. The remorseful tone of “The Flat Earth” showcases Dolby’s fondness for calypso music while reminding us how artfully reflective his songs were in the 1980s. And the surprising addition of “Field Work” yields stories about Dolby’s friend Ryuichi Sakamoto and a tribute to the 1983 cult film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which starred David Bowie as a soldier in a Japanese prison camp.
Speaking of Bowie, Dolby and some of his bandmates like guitarist Kevin Armstrong famously played as David Bowie’s band in the London performance for Live Aid in 1985. With a pedigree like that, you know this a really good and talented band. Armstrong, drummer Mat Hector, and fiddler Aaron Jonah Lewis made for a strong and effective quartet along with Dolby, wrapping the various musical influences into a pleasant new wave blend.
So while the reinvigorated Thomas Dolby isn’t as edgy or brash as his younger self, catching him in concert is definitely a rewarding and satisfying experience. The crowd at the Birchmere roundly and ecstatically applauded every song and the modest Mr. Dolby seemed earnestly flattered and humbled by the admiration. He then flew off to indulge his fascination with all things technological by appearing at the Design West conference in San Jose, Calif., the next day. Typical Thomas Dolby!