Thievery Corporation

DJs/composers/producers Rob Garza and Eric Hilton aka Thievery Corporation have been among the most popular exponents of modern lounge in the age of electronic dance music. The sounds of bossanova, reggae and hip hop are the basic building blocks of their subtle electro-acoustic sound, further spiced with horns, lush synths, global exotica and a smattering of guest vocalists.

artist:
Thievery Corporation

country of origin:
USA

style(s):
Lounge, trip hop, Latin, dub, world music

decades active:
90's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Sounds From Thievery Hi Fi (1997, ESL Music/4AD)
  • DJ Kicks mixed by Thievery Corporation (1999, K7 Records)
  • The Mirror Conspiracy (2000, ESL Music/4AD)
  • The Richest Man In Babylon (2002, ESL Music)

Reviewed by Mike G

DJs/composers/producers Rob Garza and Eric Hilton aka Thievery Corporation have been among the most popular exponents of modern lounge in the age of electronic dance music. The sounds of bossanova, reggae and hip hop are the basic building blocks of their subtle electro-acoustic sound spiced with horns, lush synths, global exotica and a smattering of guest vocalists. Their headquarters is Washington DC, home to Eighteenth Street Lounge which is the name of both their nightclub and their beloved indie record label. The former helps fund the latter, on which recordings from both themselves and various other acts have emanated at fairly regular intervals since the late 1990's.

Thievery have developed an ultra-smooth eclectic style that has been particularly popular on the other side of the Atlantic. What Austrian duo Kruder & Dorfmeister began, Garaza and Hilton have cleverly honed into something akin to a brand, so the appeal to fashion-conscious Europeans is therefore not surprising. The duo's dedication to style in everything they do - their music, artwork, sense of dress, PR, choice of live and DJ gigs - is both a strength and a weakness. Music-as-fashion helps you get noticed, but also leaves your art at risk of style eclipsing substance. That said, some of Thievery Corp's early original music - represented on three of the four albums listed above - is impressive regardless of the cocktail bar associations and image of cultivated cool.

The debut album Sounds From The Thievery Hi Fi (1997) was released to widespread underground acclaim at the time. Like Nightmare On Wax's genre-defining Smokers Delight (1995) it has an intriguing retro feel that comes largely from extensive and creative use of samples taken from 60's/70's soul and funk records, TV and movie dialogue. The mostly instrumental arrangements are lean and that's one of the album's great strengths: the relatively bare beats and basslines make for quietly powerful groove music. The stoned hip hop numbers "One", "Transcendence" and "Incident At Gate 7" achieve a spine tingling ambience with a very restrained use of their respective elements - strings, subtle synths, flute, tamboura, wisps of indistinct vocal. There's also an ominous edge at times - "Interlude" and "The Oscillator" for example - that's every bit as compelling as Kruder & Dorfmeister's darker cinematic moments. The few "songs" are Jamaican vocals and toasting with a conscience, setting the scene for the vaguely revolutionary fervor that permeates most of Thievery's album releases to date.

The Mirror Conspiracy (2000) is the duo's second collection of original songs and instrumentals, and is where their polished studio craft really starts to emerge. There's a fuller sound, more dominant Latin poly-rhythms and more live instrumentation. "Le Monde" introduces the smooching vibrato electric piano and muted wah-wah guitar phrases so often associated with the silky Thievery sound. The special way in which Gaza and Hilton integrate little ideas from sources as diverse as orchestral soundtracks, cool jazz and Indian folk songs makes for many striking and beautiful moments here, a method much imitated since by other nu jazz and lounge acts since. The album also marks the debut of regular guest vocalist Lou Lou - whatever her lyrical intentions are, it's not the words but the the soft, sexy, melodious sound of her voice that stays with you.

The Richest Man In Babylon (2002) is arguably the last really great Thievery album. It's the work of a mature duo more interested in refinement rather than innovation and it's a gorgeously slow-burning collection of down-to-midtempo grooves and luminous sounds. It contains some of their most uplifting, full-blooded melodic instrumentals like the sultry Arabic groove "Facing East", and "From Creation" with its muted electric piano/guitar and soaring ethereal strings. The Spanish vocal on "My Destiny" by one Patrick de Santos is exceptionally tender, and two melancholic songs featuring husky-voiced Icelandic singer EmilianaTorrini are touching and vulnerable.

Babylon's polish begs the question: where to from here? As good as that album is, it does suggest a musical dead-end is not far away and that's unfortunately confirmed by The Cosmic Game (2005). The line-up of star guests (David Byrne, The Flaming Lips) can't mask its lack of emotional engagement at times and in the end style triumphs over substance. The stridently political Radio Retaliation (2008) is more interesting lyrically, but sonically it's essentially more of the same despite faster tempos and a fresh line-up of guest singers. Most Thievery albums post-Babylon find the duo sticking to a well-honed formula; aural wallpaper for trendy house music types to chill out to. That's the trouble with finding a nice comfy lounge: you want to stay there.

Of Thievery Corporation's DJ mixes available to buy, the best is their excellent entry in the DJ Kicks series from 1999, which for some fans remains the highlight of their album output despite having only two of their own compositions. A travelogue of old inspirations - like bachelor pad soundtrack icon Les Baxter) - along with Indian sitar melodies and cutting-edge lounge productions, it marks them as selectors and mixers of note and sits comfortably alongside Kruder and Dorfmeister's classic from the same series.

Share this:
Share