Astronauts & Heretics (Giant)
Thomas Dolby

By Bob Bahr

Despite the name of this album, Thomas Dolby's work here is neither heretical nor stellar. This nine-song effort is faring well on the college charts, which only seems to indicate that our cutting-edge youth are getting soft. Astronauts & Heretics is safe, steady and forgettable.

The first cut, "I Love You Goodbye," glides by pleasantly with some nice violin texture and freewheeling lyrics. What a surprise it is to find that Dolby believes the insertion of Michael Doucet's violin (and banjo and accordion playing from Al Tharp and Wayne Toups) makes the song somewhat Cajun, when their contributions are hammered flat into a pop context. This evokes Louisiana about as much as Cajun Doritos.

Dolby's other attempts to give flavor to his pop gruel are equally ludicrous. The English keyboardist brings in Eddie Van Halen for "Close But No Cigar," presumably for some guitar bite, but aside from the electric guitar's prominent place in the sound mix, the track is less than notable. Dolby's hackneyed chord progression forces Van Halen to play a guitar part that is beyond mundane. The moment that stands out is the guitar trick at the end of the first run-through of the chorus, when Van Halen makes that queer barnyard yowl with his guitar that you hear at the beginning of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)."

Speaking of the Beatles, the basis of much of Astronauts & Heretics is built on Beatlesque pop, albeit filtered through a go-between band, XTC. Unfortunately, that musical fabric is made into cliched drivel such as "I Live in a Suitcase," which most anyone could guess the verses of just from hearing the title. Dolby fares better on "Silk Pyjamas," an infectious bit of contrasting images and singable melodies.

Then, what's that? Adrian Belew's "Big Electric Cat"? No, it's Dolby's "Eastern Bloc," a timely commentary on the recent falling of the Berlin Wall. How long have these song ideas languished in the Dolby vault? Van Halen is again tapped to spice the groove, this time with a nice solo. Nevertheless, the strong points of this record that begin to emerge are Dolby's keyboard and drum programming and Matthew Seligman's faintly Pastorius-influenced bass playing.

Dolby's flight enters a holding pattern with "Cruel" (with vocalist Eddi Reader in the copilot seat), "That's Why People Fall in Love" (with vocalist/crew member Ofra Haza and saxophonist Jimmy Z) and "Neon Sister," Dolby's strongest lyrical effort. In these cuts, a sense of completion is generally missing. When the lyrics seem up to the task, the music lets them down with dynamic flatness. When the music pushes things, usually by way of a solid groove, the lyrics are mentally out to lunch. Dolby is at his best when he communicates his personal musings through lighthearted images and surreal twists; this approach doesn't require as strong a song structure.

On the last cut, Dolby tries to tie up some loose ends. "Beauty of a Dream" reads like a love letter and plays like a hundred other ballads. Jerry Garcia contributes isolated guitar fills, and bassist Leland Sklar demonstrates his respect for Jaco Pastorius, but the song again drifts away without much of a climactic release. Astronauts & Heretics suffers much the same fate.