It's both fitting and ironic that the cover of An Eye on the World features Spy From Cairo creator Zeb's photo on a passport. Fitting, because Zeb is about as well-traveled and multicultural as they come -- born in Italy of Egyptian parents, a former resident of London and current resident of New York. Ironic, because thanks to John Ashcroft's Islamic terrorist witch-hunt, Zeb is now unable to travel abroad -- if he leaves the States, he'll be denied reentry.
Given this context, the effortlessly pan-global tracks on Zeb's third solo album, and first under the Spy From Cairo handle, take on all sorts of political significance. Even the choice of new alias is clearly intended as a droll "fuck you" to the Bush administration's determination to treat anyone from a predominantly Islamic nation as a potential terrorist, the Muslim equivalent of inner city youth proudly declaring themselves "thugs" and "gang-bangers".
Despite the not-so-subtle undercurrent of anger and frustration behind Zeb's latest project (and in case you missed it, his liner notes "salute every person that thinks this world has become unbearable and that we need a revolution . . . not another war"), the music itself is far more of the tone suggested by track titles like "Don't Panic I'm Islamic" and the cheeky "Ride My Camel", which sounds more like a coded sexual come-on than anything else given the song's smoothly seductive vibe. There's a low-key playfulness in nearly all of Zeb's Spy From Cairo creations, as if he's redirecting his thwarted wanderlust into music that roams the globe as restlessly as his gypsy forebears did.
World music influences aside, An Eye on the World is first and foremost a downtempo/ambient album, which means that its tracks tend to sound like exotic wallpaper at first shine, and only grow on you after repeated listens. Even then, they never grab you the way a more pop- or dance-oriented album would; these songs are designed to linger in the background, and that's where they're at their most effective, setting the mood for a sunset drive, a trendy bar, a hippie chai-serving coffeehouse or maybe an international peace negotiation. Well, okay, maybe not the last one, but we can dream, right?
Not surprisingly, Zeb's strongest influences tend to be from around the lands of his ancestors; there are lots of spacey, dubbed-out vocals of indeterminately Middle Eastern origin (some sampled, some contributed by the haunting Smadar Levi), echoing doumbeks and Zeb's own nimble work on the ud, or oud, a guitar-like Middle Eastern instrument. But he's also very fond of Indian tablas, sitars and drones, Jamaican dub-reggae basslines, futuristic synth hooks and the languid trip-hop beats favored by American and European downtempo acts like Thievery Corporation and Kruder & Dorfmeister. He even tosses some African chants and Afro-pop horns and percussion on "More", though this is the by far the album's least convincing track.
At his best, Zeb layers his various sounds in a way that creates a universally exotic style without watering down the component parts. "Zindagi" (the Hindu word for "life") is a remarkable fusion of Jamaican dub, Indian vocals and electronic embellishments; "Under the Tree" features a sitar and synth horns dueting on the same riff over a breezy piano vamp and spacey breakbeats; "International" sprinkles sampled Rasta toasts and Levi's Arabian chants over a droning sitar and meandering, dubby bass, as tablas keep time with a sauntering trip-hop beat. Such world grooves mash-ups are not new to music -- people like Talvin Singh, Cheb i Sabbah and Thievery Corporation have been doing it for years -- but it's still nice to hear another voice add such an assured contribution to the mix.
The only criticism that could be fairly leveled at Zeb's Spy From Cairo project is that he's a little too smooth for his own good -- tracks like the hypnotic "All Beautiful Machines" and the dark, trippy opener "Steppin' Out" (companion to spacey dub/reggae closing track "Steppin' In") are wonderfully atmospheric but also curiously anonymous, composite sketches of Zeb's various influences that are so artfully rendered they wind up looking like no one in particular. I'm also puzzled at the choice to include what is essentially the same track twice -- "Spacewalk", track three, is just "The Ballad", track seven, with the addition of Smadar Levi's ethereal vocals and a lovely acoustic guitar solo. It's one thing to throw on a remix or alternate take as your last track, but the placement and near-identical of these tracks leaves "The Ballad" sounding like a weird afterthought.
Too smooth or not, as smart, worldly background music goes this is pretty terrific stuff, conjuring exotic vibes galore with deceptive ease. We should all live in a world with a soundtrack half this cool -- and maybe, if more artists like Zeb have their way, someday we all will.