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Thievery Corporation – Radio Retaliation (Album Review)

Ambient, downtempo, lounge, chill. Whatever the pretentious-sounding genre classification, the one thing that’s hard to deny about the music of Thievery Corporation is that it grooves. Mellow and self-assured, the group’s records woozily meander through a smorgasbord of multicultural influences – acid jazz, French pop, bossa nova – like some sort of warped UN-sponsored rock concert.

Over the course of four records, the DC-based electronica duo of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton has proven itself to be a premier auteur of ‘hip’, releasing album after album of suave, seemingly effortless electronica music tailor-made for swank clubs, luxury-car commercials, and Zack Braff indie films. (Lebanese Blonde figures prominently in Garden State).

After garnering attention for The Mirror Conspiracy and The Richest Man In Babylon, the group enlisted the help of a surprisingly high-profile list of artists on 2006’s The Cosmic Game, fleshing out their grooves with vocal turns from the likes of Perry Farrell, Wayne Coyne and David Byrne.

By now, the formula is almost routine. Most of the songs on Radio Retaliation, the band’s fifth go-around, follow a strikingly similar pattern: an inoffensive rhythm section of sparse guitar licks, lush piano chords and programmed drums hum along for a spell, before giving way to some reggae-tinged soul-singing and a variety of worldly instruments that include Arabic strings, New Orleans brass, and anything else Garza and Hilton can sample from their dusty record bins. Simple and effective, the recipe goes down smooth as ever on tracks like the Latin-inflected El Pueblo Unido.

At the same time, Retaliation is undeniably the group’s funkiest album to date, chock-full of punchy horns and chicken-scratch guitar numbers such as The Numbers Game, which finds go-go legend Chuck Brown convincingly huffing, cackling, and commanding the listener to “shake out your mind”. Even the slow-simmering, sitar-led Mandala eventually breaks out into a cathartic blast of DJ-scratching and triumphant trumpets.

Like a well-meaning mother pureeing some carrots into the mac-and-cheese, Thievery arms its ear-candy with decidedly political undertones, from the anti-establishment mood of Sound the Alarm that kick off the album to the ominous marching-band percussion that propel (The Forgotten People). Thankfully, the message doesn’t interfere with the music: the swaying horns and polyrhythmic drums of Vampires do a commendable job of disguising the song’s clunky political metaphors. (“If you go to Darfur, what do you find? Vampires!”)

Seeing as this a Thievery Corporation release, echoes of earlier albums are frequent and glaring. Notch’s vocals on Radio Retaliation and Blasting Through the City rehash Amerimacka and The Richest Man in Babylon from previous records, while the hip-shaking Hare Krsna borrows liberally from The State of the Union’s swing-hop number Liberation Front.

Such lazy retreads highlight Thievery’s more overarching problem of gravitating towards style over substance, and groove over composition. While Karzil and Hilton prove their narrative prowess with the dips and swells they orchestrate on tracks such as Mandala and Sweet Tides, elsewhere nebulous exercises like 33 Degree blend into the woodwork thanks to their formless, unremarkable hooks.

Even an anthemic instrumental like The Shining Path feels incomplete, seemingly begging for a full-throated rock singer to infuse it with passion and urgency. For better or worse, Thievery is ultimately content to stick to the script, busting out another batch of worldly background noise perfect for a post-party VIP lounge in Ibiza.
(Adam Conner-Simons)