A best of compilation is a certain landmark for a band. Ostensibly, it’s proof that they’ve been proficient and consistent enough to merit a comprehensive, selective treatment for the benefit of new and old listeners alike, and it’s an assertion that they’re relevant and prominent enough for that “best of” label to mean something. Almost always, then, an album like It Takes a Thief points backwards in a bid for cultural credibility, and it’s no different here. The 16 songs were chosen by Eric Hilton and Rob Garza themselves, as the Thievery Corporation website describes them as the two’s “favorite tracks”. Whatever personal tastes came to bear on the selections, there’s no doubt that the track list is carefully constructed to act as a kind of Sparknotes to Thievery Corporation’s career. The analogy is unfavorably apt, however, because the listening here is about as dry and utilitarian as an English primer.
There’s little of the variety that makes other groups’ retrospectives occasionally fascinating or at least novel. Only a seasoned follower will detect the shifts from one period of the band’s career to the next, from the funky satin of The Mirror Conspiracy to the satin funk of The Cosmic Game. Thievery Corporation’s formula hasn’t changed much since their full-length breakthrough in 2000: pseudo-anonymous international vocals, trip-hop inspired lounge beats, and unobtrusive grooves mixed into an exotic and somehow simultaneously benign party (read: grown-up party) soundtrack. This is also the kind of party that might have been a fundraiser for Al Gore or John Kerry. Hilton and Garza have been outspoken about the tenure and ensuing legacy of George W. Bush, and songs like “Vampires” and “Amerimacka” take a passionate if vague stance on the international politics of war, trade, and immigration. One can only assume they’re coming from the right place, but it’s not usually the political songs that strike a chord.
Instead, there’s “Lebanese Blonde”, seared into every sensitive teen’s memory by its inclusion on the Garden State soundtrack, and “Sweet Tides”, an equally sentimental love song from the band’s latest, Radio Retaliation — “Sweet tides / Pools of love / Your eyes are full of.” With a liquid bassline, convoluted drum rolls, and plenty of brass fanfare, syrup-sweet potions like this one make you think that Thievery Corporation might be better off hidden away in a corporate music factory somewhere, writing pop ballads.
Even so, there are moments of irresistible, unconscious head-nodding compulsion, like “Exilio (Rewound)”, taken from a self-remix CD released after 2002’s Richest Man in Babylon, that reminds of the duo’s reputable stature as easy-listening pioneers. Just try putting the chanting Spanish chorus, chiming Latin rhythm, and imperatively chill bassline on the stereo without smiling a little or picturing yourself in some kind of transnational paradise (a jet, maybe). Of course, even if you get caught up in such a globalized reverie, you’ll no doubt soon forget that there’s anything coming out of your speakers. The problem with the music, political and otherwise, is that it’s very easy to digest and nearly impossible to sink your teeth into.
Unlike It Takes a Thief, that battered old English primer has got the potential to point you onwards to new and greater discoveries if you’ll just put in the hours. There’s nothing here you can’t gather with the purchase of four LPs and a couple of MP3 downloads. In fact, though the promotional materials claim that the last track, “Passing Stars” has never seen release, it’s been available on Amazon for download since November 2007 as part of a benefit CD called Causes 1. It looks like Thievery Corporation has a few more albums to go before they can put out a best of collection worthy of the name.