[2 October 2008]
With November 4, 2008 creeping closer and closer, it’s inevitable that political pundits and commercials will run rampant on each and every broadcast medium. When you turn on the TV, the mudslinging advertisements are everywhere. If you decide to take a date to the movies, the politic-heavy films are all over the screens. And then there are all the albums coming out that have politics worked into at least one song, if not the entire disc. Even a rapper like Ludacris, an otherwise straight-up shit-talker, has made his thoughts known on the troubles of society and the upcoming election.
But, to be fair, none of this is new or radically different from past years. Musicians have always waxed poetic about which politician they prefer or how the world is being torn to pieces by war. And at this point, particularly after eight years with one of the worst presidents in history, anti-establishment music has become the norm.
So how can an artist justify releasing an album this late into Dubya’s reign without sounding like a bandwagon hater? Well, for Thievery Corporation, a staple of the American downtempo scene, they went across the globe while touching on the problems at home. Also, they took some chances on Radio Retaliation, their fifth album, to show they aren’t satisfied with just pumping out their traditional cuts. But what keeps this record from truly being revolutionary is that it tends to rely too much on their tried-and-true style. And what’s left is an unbalanced collection of tracks that is cohesive but, in the end, too safe.
We all know what these two guys from Washington D.C. are capable of creating at this point. “Lebanese Blond” still stands as one of the best and catchiest downtempo tracks in recent history. But when you are five albums in, it’s time for some progression. As trivial as comparisons are, look at what Portishead did. Sure, Dummy and Portishead sounded like sister-records. The group took time, though, to hone and develop a new sound for Third, which is easily in the top 10 albums released this year. Even though comparing Thievery Corporation to Portishead is an obvious stretch, it still works as a means to show how artists can evolve and remain relevant.
But that’s not to say Thievery Corporation’s Rob Garza and Eric Hilton are no longer relevant. They just haven’t done as much to switch up their style since dropping Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi in 1997. While it’s true that the duo has enlisted a variety of artists while tapping into different genres, their core sound has remained. On certain tracks, though, that’s not necessarily a negative. For example, Radio Retaliation‘s “Mandala”, which features an excellent sitar performance by Anushka Shankar, is a typical but outstanding Thievery Corporation song. And Garza and Hilton really throw everything they can into it, especially at the end with the horns and percussion. Similarly, “Vampires” and “Hare Krisna” are effective blends of traditional Thievery Corporation with guest artists Femi Kuti and Seu Jorge, respectfully, who both contribute some excellent and stirring vocals. But as the album continues, those strong efforts in the beginning are overshadowed by cuts like “33 Degree” and “La Femme Parallel” that share too many familiarities with previous TC efforts.
Luckily for Garza and Hilton, they succeed when taking slight risks. The title-track and “Sound the Alarm” illustrate that point by being more dub-heavy and sonically diverse. Sleepy Wonder sings on both tracks and provides a dancehall feel, especially on “Radio Retaliation”. Another standout is the Chuck Brown feature “The Numbers Game”. The track plays like bluesy trip-hop for outer space. And Brown’s vocals work extremely well over the jazzy horns and psychedelic guitar. Similarly, “The Shining Path” is another spacey, bass-driven, guitar-wash-laden track. But this time, the music speaks for itself. And then there is “Sweet Tides”, which has LouLou providing heavenly vocals. It’s a strange amalgamation of styles, as it sounds like a Top 40 contemporary ballad fused with downtempo. But it works, even though the lyrics are a little cheesy. The drums are fantastic and take the song to another level two-thirds of the way through, when they smash and bang like a John Bonham tantrum.
By the time “Sweet Tides” trickles out of your speakers or headphones, a few things become clear about Radio Retaliation. First, this album is equal parts revolution and tradition. Some tracks are obviously head and shoulders above the rest in that they are different and, more importantly, damn good. But then you have the songs that fall in line with Thievery Corporation’s earlier work. And no matter how solid those cuts are, they sound repetitive and tired at this point. Although Garza and Hilton have still created a cohesive and enjoyable listen, Radio Retaliation could have used some more variety.