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February 25, 2005

Thievery Corporation mixes jazz, electronica on most mature effort yet

The Thievery Corporation is Washington D.C. duo Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, and they are back with even more of their infectious electronic fusion of dub, bossa nova, jazz, and other stylish sounds in their fourth album. The group is perhaps best known for their song "Lebanese Blonde" from their sophomore effort The Mirror Conspiracy, which I guarantee you've heard somewhere.

From Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi, their first album, to their most recent album, The Richest Man in Babylon, the duo has created a wonderful mix of styles. Their sound has evolved from a downtempo sound with tentative forays into bossa nova, jazz, and dub, to moody, atmospheric music with strong social commentary that embraces these styles in a way one doesn't often hear in the downtempo genre. Thievery Corporation has gone and created their own unique fusion, taking the best of many music types, electronic or otherwise.

In The Cosmic Game, Thievery Corporation puts dub on the back burner in favor of developing other sounds. While "Amerimacka" and "Wires and Watchtowers" sound a lot like their work in the strongly dub-influenced The Richest Man in Babylon, many songs in this album embrace bossa nova and other Latin sounds, such as "Sol Tapado" and "Ambicion Eterna." However, the diversity of the album goes beyond these two genres. "The Heart's a Lonely Hunter" is almost a pop song, with jazzy singing by David Byrne. It is perhaps my favorite song on the album, thanks to its infectious drums and horns, along with Byrne's stylish performance.

The several Indian-influenced tracks, with soaring vocalizations by Gunjan, bring an out-of-mind, otherworldly element to the album. This altered consciousness theme can also be seen in the psychedelic cover art, with its mass of red and black concentric circles and album title in distorted letters, appearing straight out of 1967 Haight.

Thievery Corporation hasn't lost its political edge, which can be found in such songs as "Marching the Hate Machines," with guests the Flaming Lips, and "Warning Shots," though the songs seem to lack the energy of similar ones in The Richest Man in Babylon. Upon inspection of "Marching the Hate Machines," a sense of sadness and despair seems to suffuse the song, as if Garza and Hilton see needed social and political reform as impossible. Perhaps it is in this despair that the album turns inward in its second half, seeking internal transcendence in the face of political failure.

With an emphasis on psychedelia and bossa nova, Thievery Corporation has in some ways returned to the sounds and styles of their first two albums, while embracing a certain '60s jet-set atmosphere. A more laid-back album than The Richest Man in Babylon, The Cosmic Game seems like the perfect soundtrack for late nights in some hip international lounge, much like the Eighteenth Street Lounge, where Garza and Hilton are regular DJs. This album initially felt like a step back from the masterful The Richest Man in Babylon. However, it has steadily grown on me after repeated listening.

Upon reflection, I would say that this is the group's most advanced album yet, as they have managed to expand their sound while keeping it recognizably "Thievery." The complexity of the production has increased, with new subtleties to be found in the introduction of horns and drums. In the face of these complex arrangements and diverse musical styles, it is a testament to Thievery Corporation's artistry and skill that they managed to put together an album that is infinitely listenable and very coherent; no song feels out of place.