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Thomas Dolby, “17 Hills”


Quick, like a bunny, listen to “17 Hills” before someone takes it down. This is one of the best songs on Thomas Dolby’s new album “A Map of the Floating City,” which you really must purchase. Buy it now on Amazon, or wherever you happen to shop. NOW!

Thomas tells the story of a criminal who is in the process of escaping from prison, a prison very much like Alcatraz, in a city very much like San Francisco. (We know it’s not SF because SF has 47 named hills.) Each verse, he describes what’s happening at the moment, while reflecting on the events that got him into prison, and the style of the music changes according to what he’s describing. It’s really almost a tone poem that happens to have lyrics. Amazing artistry, I think. Thomas has outdone himself on this one.

I like the honky-tonk bit where he describes his girlfriend Irene, but my favorite bit is the verse with the strings, where he’s wanting a hacksaw blade. Beautiful. If I had tear ducts, I would use them.

The steel (slide) guitarist is Bruce Kaphan, who’s noted for his ambient new age work. And that’s Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits on the guitar. The fretless bassist is Jeffrey Wash. I used to play the fretless bass, when I had more time. Nothing else sounds like a fretless bass. Thomas Dolby and Gary Numan both use them in their music from time to time. Mick Karn, who died recently, was one of the best fretless bassists in the world. I like Jeffrey Wash’s sound, though.

Here’s the first of three videos where Thomas describes how he constructed this piece. Some of the bits, he flipped over and played backwards to create the unique sounds in this song. You can do that in Digital Audio Workstation software (DAW software). Thomas uses Pro Tools, and he uses it well.

  1. 2012-03-06T01:29:46-05:00 01:29

    That’s got a real nice sound to it. My dad would like it, too – he’s a Knopfler fan (and plays guitar). I must admit, I never really delved into Thomas Dolby past good ol’ “Close but no cigar”.


    • 2012-03-07T10:47:07-05:00 10:47

      I’m glad you listened to it! But yes, I quit listening pretty much after 1992. I liked “That’s Why People Fall In Love,” and I liked “NEO,” but since about 1988 he wasn’t very consistent in the quality of songs across each album. He’s in great form now, but I don’t really care much for the countrified sound of some of the songs on his latest. “Toad Lickers” is just stupid, I think. But “Evil Twin Brother” makes up for it.


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