The Washington, DC duo Thievery Corporation, and their label Eighteenth Street Lounge Music, occupy a unique niche in the world of electronica. From their homebase at the DC nightclub after which their label is named, Rob Garza, Eric Hilton and cohorts have been creating music since 1995 that combines retro lounge sounds with downtempo dance grooves, dub and world-beat stylings. It’s evolved into a very particular and distinct sound, but one that, as Giovanni Condolini points out in his liner notes to Modular Systems, has yet to be named. Call it the Eighteenth Street Lounge sound and, for an introduction to it, Modular Systems is as good a place to start as any.
Modular Systems represents some of ESL Music’s best recent output, along with a smattering of unreleased tracks and new remixes designed to lure in established fans as well as curious newcomers. There are many gems here but, like most such compilations, Modular Systems is a mixed bag, showing off both the label’s strengths and weaknesses.
The album starts off strong with its two best artists (apart from Thievery Corporation themselves), Italy’s bossa nova guru Nicola Conte and DC-based Thievery proteges Thunderball. Conte’s “Arabesque”, the opening track of his Bossa Per Due album, is a slinky piece of spy-movie menace, with tiki bar percussion and a great Henry Mancini horn line. Like a lot of Conte’s work, it’s derivative, sure, but no one else right now is mining this territory more effectively, or with a better sense of lounge music’s key ingredient, atmosphere. Atmosphere also carries Thunderball’s “On the Sly”, a similar riff on ‘60s movie soundtracks that gets under your skin thanks to propulsive breakbeats and a crafty bassline.
Blue States’ “Your Girl” keeps things on the lounge tip but injects a dose of ‘60s psychedelic pop into the proceedings, with a dreamy female vocal and tinkling electric piano drifting over a chugging backbeat. Eighteenth Street poobahs Thievery Corporation weigh in on track four with a new tune called, “Bario Alto”, which is pleasant but nothing special, the kind of midtempo ambient track the Thieves can crank out in their sleep. Ursula 1000’s “Mr. Hrundi’s Holiday” takes the compilation back into interesting territory with a spacey middle eastern flavor spiced up with more spy-movie horns and tablas accompanying an infectious, almost funky beat.
After that, Modular Systems loses much of its eclectic, sophisticated charm, meandering into a lot of dub and Afro-beat territory with decidedly mixed results. Jamaican-born dub master Desmond Williams tosses in some drum-and-bass rhythms and retro-future instrumentation (love that electric sitar) to good effect on “For the Trees”, but his “Comeback Dub” is drab and aimless. Eighteenth Street Lounge’s resident DJ Farid mixes bouncy reggae guitars and percussion with a sleepy, dubbed-out lounge vibe on “Pit Stop”. Blue States and Thunderball return with weaker followups to their opening tracks—Blue States’ “Golden Touch” is an underwritten slice of more spy-movie atmospherics, while Thunderball’s “Solar” borrows a page from Nicola Conte’s bossa nova book but can’t find anywhere to go with the groove.
Surprisingly, Modular Systems’ worst missteps come from Thievery Corporation, whose remixes and original tracks are typically brilliant but fail to deliver much here. Their remix of Nicola Conte’s deliciously groovy “Bossa Per Due” strips the track of most of its allure, replacing warm bossa nova beats and sensuous vocals with sparse snare drum loops and fractured shards of the original’s tropical sway. They eviscerate Thunderball’s “Pop the Trunk” in much the same way—where the original was all soul brother swagger and breakbeat urgency, the Thievery remix is a cool Latin jazz soundscape of flute solos and African chants, pleasant enough but retaining nary a trace of Thunderball’s streetwise intensity. And the compilation’s closing track, another Thievery original called “A Guide for I and I”, suffers the same of lack of creative spark that makes “Bario Alto” a disappointment. It’s not a bad cut, but it’s such a retread of better material on Thievery’s 2000 release The Mirror Conspiracy that it feels like an afterthought.
Ultimately, most of the best tracks on Modular Systems are available on other ESL Music releases, so for hardcore fans of the Thievery Corporation sound, there’s little here worth recommending. On the other hand, as an introduction to Eighteenth Street Lounge’s distinctive blend of lounge atmospherics and dance music grooves, it’s worth a look.