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Various Artists: ESL Remixed: The 100th Release of ESL Music

Various Artists
ESL Remixed
Eighteenth Street Lounge

You wouldn’t think that this is the 100th release by Eighteenth Street Lounge, the Washington, DC label best known for its parents Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, aka Thievery Corporation. It doesn’t seem to have been around that long, although its status as a defining label of the downbeat genre does imply that long times of hard work were involved. Since 1995 Eighteenth Street Lounge has carved its niche, secured it, coated it, and made it comfortable, suave, slick, sophisticated — to a point where I wouldn’t have a cocktail in DC without the label’s exotic smooth sounds emanating from the speakers. But this 100th compilation confirms something already apparent: that ESL has also mostly been a label treading creative water.

To be sure, Thievery Corporation, the unavoidable thrust of the enterprise, have progressed. From their more Spartan downbeat beginnings with Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi and The Mirror Conspiracy, the duo have taken on more and more influences, sounds, and collaborators — and on that turn, their recent Cosmic Game album was easily their best since The Mirror Conspiracy, with the duo finally seeming to find themselves at ease with the road traveled. ESL has also experimented with different sounds, from the cinematic car-chase into a ’60s mod party funk of Ursula 1000 to the Fez funk of the Karminsky Experience and the smooth Latin of Federico Aubele. But it has all been under a blanket of closely-managed, buffed, and polished sounds that has sometimes suffocated the music’s vitality.

The truth is that the most invigorating thing to come out of ESL for a long while was this summer’s quite stunning album by Ocote Soul Sounds and Adrian Quesada. Without disbanding its core constituency, the label managed to put out something really fresh and unique, something more vibrant and alive. Essentially something less polished and predictable than before. It also helped that Ocote and Quesada had both personal cultural identities and musical careers in their field of Latin and Afro-tingled sounds, whereas much of ESL’s “outernational” repertoire has been shaped by Western travelers becoming seduced by eastern sounds. So the Ocote/Quesada album was a breath of genuine fresh air, and, in a sense, the ESL Remixed compilation is a follow-up chapter.

The tightness of the ESL sound works to give ESL Remixed a good starting base and a myriad of artists apply their own inspired hints and touches to energize the whole thing. Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra adds a growingly exquisite Air-esque ’70s feel to Thievery Corporation’s “A Gentle Dissolve”. Boca 45 has a party-fat rolling funk bassline breaking all over Thunderball’s “Stereo Tonic”. Chris Joss beats Joe Bataan’s “Chick-a-boom” into a little twisted, hand-clapping, catchy club tune. Medeski, Martin & Wood thankfully do not go completely overboard on their Karminsky remix, but drive us back to their early days of wooden basslines and audacious rhythms. Along with Lee’s contribution, the best of the bunch is the über-funky and cotton-silked Beatfanatic rendition of The Kaminsky Experience’s “Belly Disco,” truly some of the best work from the Swedish Raw Fusion collective member. It’s all rounded off with Calexico very efficiently going tango. The common denominator of all this: a reinvigorating take on the well-polished sounds of ESL, putting careful craft to better use.

This compilation is a shining light for ESL — showing that the label’s future lies in taking on new artists with strong cultural backgrounds and broadening the sound, taking chances, and experimenting, not unlike what the very successful Chicago label Ubiquity has done. One hundred releases is a real achievement for an independent label; this is a very fine compilation and praise is due. But the future for ESL begins here.

RATING 8 / 10