Circa 1988, my schoolmate Seb stuck a few tracks from The Flat Earth (possibly ‘Screen Kiss’ and ‘Mulu’) at the end of the Lovesexy tape he did for me.
I was smitten – I needed as much music as possible by this guy. I’ve since bought the albums several times on various formats.
On Earth, Dolby deliberately downplays the ‘zany’ image and creates an atmospheric, beautifully arranged, largely introspective collection.
He covers various styles (funk, lounge jazz, synth rock, World), mastering all with an incredible consistency of mood, production and songwriting.
My mates and I also loved his habit of incorporating seemingly-random clips of audio into/between his songs, like the spoken word outbursts from the likes of Robyn Hitchcock.
The title track came from an unused jam originally intended for Malcolm McLaren’s Trevor Horn-produced Duck Rock album.
Its lilting South African melody (reminiscent of ‘Obtala’ from Duck Rock) and confessional lyrics signalled a new maturity in Dolby’s style, continuing with the majestic ‘Screen Kiss’ featuring excellent, much imitated fretless bass work from Matthew Seligman.
Techno-rocker ‘White City’ should be covered by someone. Dolby himself masters the art of the cover version with his take on Dan Hicks’s ‘I Scare Myself’ featuring a gorgeous muted trumpet solo by guitarist Kevin Armstrong who, according to Dolby’s liner notes, had never played the instrument before the recording.
And the album closer ‘Hyperactive’ (originally written for Michael Jackson, fact fans) is actually a bit out-of-place on the largely downbeat Earth but it’s a fun, funky, irresistible little pop song, perfect to send you out into the night with a smile.
Dolby is a brilliant painter of pictures with sound, relentlessly using audio fragments to augment melodic and lyrical ideas (check out the extraordinary tree-falling which pops up throughout the title track and also the typewriters which pepper ‘Dissidents’).
But these songs would also work beautifully played with just an acoustic piano accompaniment, as his recent solo tours have demonstrated.
Of course, over here in Blighty, the music press were a bit suspicious of Dolby’s technical mastery and obvious musicianship, though The Flat Earth reached a respectable #14 in the UK album chart, #35 in the US.
Dolby followed up The Flat Earth by playing keyboards with David Bowie at Live Aid (alongside Seligman and Armstrong), forming occasional project Dolby’s Cube with George Clinton, Lene Lovich and the Brecker Brothers and producing both Prefab Sprout’s triumphant Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell’s underrated Dog Eat Dog.
But we would have to wait four years for an official solo follow-up – and it was possibly even better than The Flat Earth…