On Thievery Corporation’s last album, The Richest Man in Babylon, there was a song called “The Outernationalist”, a made-up term that describes as well as any the increasingly global outlook of the duo’s Washington, DC-based label, Eighteenth Street Lounge. Tracks on the label’s latest compilation of new and recent releases, Den of Thieves, feature artists originally from or based in England, Italy, Argentina, Austria, and Germany. It’s like the World Cup of downtempo grooves.
Compared to Modular Systems, the last Eighteenth Street compilation assembled by Thievery Corporation, Den of Thieves is a much more satisfying listen, as the label’s increasingly “outernationalist” outlook broadens and deepens the range of sounds the Thieving gents have to draw upon. The new album features fewer sparse dub and beat meditations and more full-throated sambas and high-energy breakbeat joints to round out the usual complement of head-bobbing, downtempo gems.
The biggest coup on Den of Thieves is the addition of British DJ/producer duo the Karminsky Experience, who for years have been filling the same niche in London that the Thieves fill in DC, but whose jetsetter DJ compilations and cool cat singles have never really gotten the attention they deserve on American shores. That’s going to change later this year with the ESL stateside release of the Karminsky Experience’s artist debut album, The Power of Suggestion, especially if the two tracks featured here are any indication of how good it is. Both are standouts, and for different reasons—where “Departures” is all sweet, slow-pan washes of vibraphone and strings, “Exploration” is a rumbling, hypnotic feast of sitar drone and proto-funk bass set to a chugging rock backbeat. Each track is among the compilation’s highlights.
The other new ESL artist who gets a big push here is Federico Aubele, an Argentinean artist who fuses Astor Piazzolla-inspired jazz and tango sounds to the airy atmospherics of classic ESL-style downtempo and dub. The resemblance of tracks like “Postales” and “El Amor de Este Pueblo” to Gotan Project is obvious, since the fusion of sounds is the same, but Aubele is clearly following his own path here, making music that has fewer hard edges and flashy musicianship and more of a dreamy, trip-hop vibe. His sound isn’t as fully realized as Gotan’s, or the more well established artists represented on Den of Thieves, but there’s a lot of promise in these songs.
The third and final “newcomer” here are the Sofa Surfers, a Viennese quartet who, like Karminsky Experience, have been establishing themselves overseas for years without getting much attention in the States. Their one contribution here is the title track from their ESL debut, See the Light, and it’s not likely to send American fans flocking to that release—it’s a weird soul/gospel vocal set to a rather flat trip-hop beat, a far cry from the more sophisticated sounds that grace the rest of Den of Thieves.
Elsewhere, Den of Thieves trots out the usual suspects, offering the mix common to most label compilations of old album tracks most fans will already have, stuff previously available only to vinylheads, and three token never-before-released tracks. The first of this latter group is a competent dream-dub cut from the Thieves themselves called “Language Symbolique”, featuring the unmistakable, carefully enunciated French vocals of longtime Thievery collaborator Lou Lou. The other two new cuts both come from the ever-reliable Thunderball, who offer an interesting change of pace from their usual blaxploitation-tinged trip-hop on the sitar-led rocker “Welcome Back Cooper” before returning to more familiar bachelor pad breakbeat terrain on “The Panther”. Neither track ranks with Thunderball’s best, but they’re both entertaining ‘60s soundtracky stuff, with lots of dramatic horn stabs and jazzy percussion.
Rank-and-file ESL artists Blue States, Desmond Williams, and Arkestra One contribute a track apiece from their most recent albums. “Bare Bones” is typical of the sounds-too-much-like-David-Axelrod-for-its-own-good space-rock of Blue States’ sophomore release Man Mountain; “Brooklyn Blues” is a nicely sax-infused dub track from Williams, one of the better offerings I’ve heard from him; the featherweight “Into the Light”, ironically, sounds much better placed here in the compilation’s closing slot than it did as the opener to Arkestra One’s rather dull, self-titled debut album. Sometimes just sequencing tracks is an art form, and it’s one Thievery Corporation are obvious masters of; Den of Thieves has a remarkably smooth flow to it, despite the wide range of styles it traverses.
The Thieves round things out with another recent addition to the ESL roster, the uncategorizable Les Hommes, whose “Hommage” presents a kitschy blend of Brazilian samba and hotel lounge jazz organ; and with a collaboration by two ESL veterans, Ursula 1000 and Nicola Conte, “Samba 1000”, a deliciously slinky Conte remix of Ursula’s postmodern riff on jazzy Latin vibes.
If you’re a newcomer to or casual fan of Eighteenth Street Lounge’s global-minded, ultra-chilled grooves, Den of Thieves definitely rates as the label’s best collection of sounds to date, and one of the better downtempo/chillout/loungecore/whatever-you-wanna-call-it compilations to come out in recent memory. If, however, you’re already an acolyte of the Thievery sound, my advice is to go out and get the original album and vinyl releases of this stuff, especially the forthcoming albums by the Karminsky Experience and Federico Aubele, and the 12-inch from Ursula 1000 featuring Conte’s amazing “Samba 1000” remix. As good as Den of Thieves is, it really only scratches the surface of the many terrific new sounds coming out of the Eighteenth Street Lounge.