College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #272 to #270

272. Thomas Dolby, The Flat Earth (1984)

When he made his first recordings, Thomas Dolby took great pride in his fairly isolated tinkering with computer equipment to click towards his finished product. In interviewers, he referred to himself as an inventor rather than a musician, playing up the mad scientist persona that gave a boost to his biggest U.S. hit. By the time of his sophomore LP, The Flat Earth, Dolby was already sidling away from those sentiments, extolling the virtue of collaboration and claiming he’d “exhausted the possibilities” of his prior approach. He took meetings with Michael Jackson, launched a loose collective side project called Dolby’s Cube (which would eventually bumble into a truly mortifying project), and assembled a band he could take on tour. Escaping the din of a clamorous culture remained a impulse, which lead to Dolby to abscond to Brussels, Belgium for the recording of the album. In general, though, Dolby wanted to see what he could build when he wasn’t working alone.

What Dolby offers on The Flat Earth is bustling, busy synth-pop that’s mired in distractions. “Dissidents” has a truckload of fussy, little sonic details flecked in — ricocheting electronic effects here, a cash register there — and sometimes seems to be trying to set the song against itself. It’s dabbling with generic world-music influence anticipates some of Peter Gabriel’s post-So turns, but without the precise grandeur. The title cut similarly draws on South African rhythms, which don’t manage to disguise that Dolby is straining for bigger vocals than he can really deliver. A cover of Dan Hicks’s “I Scare Myself” is like Tangerine Dream softened to lounge jazz, sending Dolby cascading into a miserable spiral.

The album implicitly, and I’m sure inadvertently, argues that Dolby is better when he’s weirder. “White City” is a thumping rock song that makes room for Robyn Hitchcock to amble in and mutter some characteristically warped spoken-word lines (“My idea when we started out, was to have, you know, rising up, some sort of an undulating, ovulating ground, which you don’t get so much nowadays”), and “Hyperactive!,” supposedly written for Jackson, is a jubilant, funk-influenced burst of reckless enthusiasm. Where Jackson would have gotten lost in the song’s sprawl (or shorn it all away), Dolby prospers, sluicing through its sonic bounty like an expert surfer who someone manages to skid onto the beach with not a lock of hair ruffled or dampened. Released as a single, the song became Dolby’s biggest hit in his U.K. homeland.

As The Flat Earth reached higher heights in the U.K., it was a letdown on the other side of the Atlantic. The album and its singles underperformed in the U.S. Four years passed before Dolby’s next album, and that effort continued the downward trend.

271. Talking Heads, Naked (1988)

The gradual process of decoupling David Byrne from Talking Heads reached its apex around the time Naked, the band’s eighth studio album, was released. Although the creation of the album was more collaborative than had been the case for years with the group, the songs all starting with improvisation jam sessions, akin to the creative process they undertook on early masterworks such as Remain in Light, when time came to peddle the product, Byrne moved the front of the spotlight. A Rolling Stone cover story coinciding with the album’s release was a fawning interview with Byrne that framed the new material’s African music influences as solely his inspiration and barely acknowledged there were three other people in Talking Heads. Bassist Tina Weymouth and keyboardist Jerry Harrison are mentioned only in passing. Drummer Chris Frantz isn’t named at all. A few years earlier, Byrne had hired his own publicist, separate from the rest of the band, seemingly to position himself as a visionary who occasionally collaborated with others, almost as an act of graciousness. The music press gladly acquiesced.

Naked is overstuffed, boisterous, and arguably Talked Heads’ weakest album. Recorded in Paris, the album packs in extra musicians: effusive horn sections, Kirsty MacColl on backing vocals for a couple tracks, Johnny Marr guitar parts all over the place, congas, cowbell, and on and on. Byrne meets the bursting busyness with vocals that almost cartoonishly florid in their extremes. On “Blind” and “Mr. Jones,” the latter a muddle rejoinder to Bob Dylan’s thin man who merited his own ballad, Byrne reaches extremes in bending his intonations that are admirable and exhausting at the same time. Still, the songs are compact and pointed enough to be effective. On “The Facts of Life,” Byrne yelps in falsetto and the song gurgles on at tedious length, as if the band simply didn’t want to put in the effort to pare down their original jam.

On many of their best songs, Talking Heads transmogrified abstract ideas into pointed commentary. They’re more direct on Naked, if sometimes tangled in their own points, uncertain as to dividing line between irony and sincerity. “(Nothing But) Flowers” is a lament from a fictional future where nature has reclaimed territory from the asphalt footprint of mankind (“This used to be real estate/ Now it’s only fields and trees/ Where, where is the town/ Now, it’s nothing but flowers”). “The Democratic Circus” drifty yet intense, has a more clear point of view in mocking the empty pageantry of the political process before landing on the scathing conclusion “And now I wonder who’s boss/ And who he’s leavin’ behind?” Even so, it too feels like a first pass at commentary, glib rather than insightful. Album closer “Cool Water” is maybe most interesting of the lot, in large part because it’s more a digression from the Talking Heads model, operating in the same bleak country-death-song rumination of the Violent Femmes’ great, underrated Hallowed Ground. On an album of explorations, “Cool Water” ventures the furthest.

About a month after Naked came out, Byrne collected an Academy Award as one of three people credited on the music score for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. As had been the case for a while, three-quarters of Talking Heads were interested in touring, but Byrne leveled his veto. In every way, his interest in being part of this group, his professional home for more than a decade, was waning. Talking Heads release only one more song: a Naked leftover titled “Sax and Violins” that appeared on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’s 1991 film, Until the End of the World. The band effectively ended in December of that year; Frantz claims he only found out when he read a Los Angeles Times article in which Byrne announced his departure. The quartet reunited for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 2002. It’s highly unlikely they’ll share the same stage — or any space, really — ever again.

270. Gang of Four, Hard (1983)

Gang of Four was a different band when they made Hard, and it resounds. There was a major personnel shift ahead of the preceding album, Songs of the Free, when bassist Dave Allen left the group and was replaced by Sara Lee. On that album, their third LP, Gang of Four shifted away from the fervent post-punk of their earliest outings, to land on a particularly agitated brand of dance pop, suitable for a more daring discotheque and yet maintaining much of their earlier musical personality. Then founding drummer Hugh Burnham made his own departure. The distinctive rhythm section of early triumphs now gone, the remaining members of Gang of Four, Lee and last holdovers vocalist John King and guitarist Andy Gill, continued the evolution into a pop group, almost robotic in their attempts to give in to the groove.

“Is It Love?” is a full-on disco hangover, and “A Man with a Good Car” puts a funk grind to utterly confusing lyrics (“A man with a good car needs no justification/ Fate is in my hands and in the transmission”). “Independence” is by-the-numbers new wave that could have come from an Animotion record, and “A Piece of My Heart” is like a watered-down version of Oingo Boingo’s frantic party music. Most of it is almost unrecognizable as Gang of Four music. The dream pop of “Silver Lining” is one of the few places where the band’s earlier flintiness survives, if only as a faint aura around the track.

Hard is not a well-loved entry in the Gang of Four catalog, and it was the band’s first album to miss the charts entirely in their U.K. homeland. In the U.S., though, the album charted higher than any of its predecessors, if only modestly so, and “Is It Love?” was a top ten single on the Billboard chart reserved for dance music. None of these small victories were enough to force the continuation of a band clearly in its death throes. Not long after the release of Hard, Gang of Four officially broke up. As with many other bands of the other, the dissolution was far from permanent. By 1990, Gang of Four, or a reasonable version of it, was back in the game.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

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