For guys who grew up on a steady diet of DC punk, the Pixies and music rougher than the type of stuff you might find at some tropical Club Med resort, Rob Garza and Eric Hilton sure know how to lay it on smooth. Rather than tear up their instruments and break down onstage a la Rites of Spring, the two beat-addicted brains behind bossa archaeologists, Thievery Corporation, have made a cozy living releasing chilled-out electronica with a decidedly international flavor.
So although there may be none of punk's germinal aggression in their work, that doesn't mean that Garza and Hilton's Thievery Corporation is simply a stir-your-drink-and-space-out collective bent on pretending they're James Bond (like the Propellerheads) or Cary Grant around the time of Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. On the contrary, they're as particularly interested in globalizing the dance floor as they are their own seductive arrangements.
Hence, the title of their latest release, The Richest Man in Babylon, a cautionary heads-up for a global culture that -- especially considering the United States' impending unilateral action in Middle East hotspots like Iraq -- seems to be turning inward more and more each day. And while dance music may not be the usual flashpoint for political activism, there is no doubting where Thievery Corporation's sympathies lie. Take the title song, for example, a bouncy reggae jam featuring Notch's scathing sociopolitical critique ("There is no guidance in your kingdom / There is no wisdom in your freedom / The wicked stench of exploitation / Hangs in the air and lingers on") delivered in a register so sweet it can give you cavities. While Notch is no Peter Tosh, who seemed to carry a promise of violent uprising wherever he went, his turn on "The Richest Man in Babylon" is a poignant one, capably capturing the futility of riches in a world so subsumed in poverty and corruption. Whether or not anyone is going to grasp the message while in the throes of an addictive mellow jam is up for debate, but it never seemed to bother Marley now, did it?
The rest of Richest Man in Babylon is a similar kind of experience, a type of sonic double consciousness that can fit your mood whether you're off to the club for a martini or heading to the park for a demonstration. And as usual, the tightest jams are found in Garza and Hilton's instrumentals, such as the silky "Liberation Front, where funky horns bump ass with acoustic guitar and head-bobbing organ samples. Or the topically-named "Facing East", whose seductive world-music atmospherics -- featuring spiralling sitar, Pamela Bricker's Bhangra moans and more -- float ethereally over yet another one of Thievery's slamming backbeats.
"Facing East", like most of The Richest Man in Babylon is an exercise in musical hypnotism, the kind the hookah crowd look for when they're trying to simmer down after a hard day at the office. Same goes for "The Outernationalist" -- see what I mean about the titles? -- a heavy dub exercise in reverb, echoes and Rastafarian shout-outs to Jah and oneness that carries the kind of mind-expansion vibe Garza and Hilton have dropped with success on past exercises like "Shaolin Satellite" from Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi or "The Hong Kong Triad" from The Mirror Conspiracy.
And while some may feel that Thievery's latest joint simply bumps and grinds over the same ground mapped on their earlier efforts, the difference this time around is the unsettling but endlessly attractive vocal efforts of Icelandic diva, Emiliana Torrini. Although reverentially sprinkled with reggae, Afro-beat, Indian and Persian flavor, The Richest Man in Babylon is at its most delicious when Torrini takes her sinuous stylings to tunes like "Heaven's Gonna Burn Your Eyes" and the disc's finest track, "Until the Morning" -- in fact, both songs feel like they leapt to life from David Lynch's deranged imagination.
Plus, Hilton and Garza seemed to enjoy establishing a thematic trend during Torrini's turns on the mike. Not only do her songs more or less bookend The Richest Man in Babylon's offerings -- except for the disc's instrumental finale, aptly titled "Resolution" -- they also share some metaphorical common ground. Like Lynch, Torrini enjoys conflating transcendence and immolation, especially by fire; indeed, she finds a measure of comfort in the inferno that might await us after our trip through American Babylon. "Heaven's Gonna Burn Your Eyes" interrogates fear of the unknown and the cost of enlightenment ("Do you applaud fear / Do you hold it near?"), while "Until the Morning" takes solace in meditation and resolution ("Sleep until the sunlight burns a happy hole in your heart").
Torrini's profile might be low, but her impact is high on The Richest Man in Babylon, transforming Thievery Corporation's latest release from a by-the-numbers revisitation of their past work into a refreshing take on a sometimes stagnant musical genre. Bottom line: a trip with Thievery is always worth taking, if only because their relaxed musicianship offers a potent counterpart to a culture that is becoming faster and more aggressive by the day. But The Richest Man in Babylon is one of their more intriguing works to date, capably blending vocal theatrics, spritual exploration and subtle songcraft in one sitting. They might not be the Bomb Squad, but they still carve out significant space in a crowded electronica landscape.