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International affairs
DCís Thievery Corporation play their cosmic games
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Thievery Corporation's official Web site

DCís Thievery Corporation have for 10 years achieved the near-impossible. In the increasingly stratified world of dance-music-based electronica, a genre that has more loopy tentacles than an overfed octopus, producers Eric Hilton and Rob Garza have found a way to appeal to geeky club kids, process-obsessed gear whores, fashion-conscious lifestyle listeners, and world-music aficionados alike. The duo take a few elements and work them to death with a knowing wink and undeniable style.

From Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi (1997) and The Mirror Conspiracy (2000) to 2002ís The Richest Man in Babylon (all ESL), Hilton and Garza made good sport of matching reggae, dub, bossa nova, pop, and Afrobeat textures over lazy, loungy trip-hop beats. Wielding samplers and instruments (bass and keyboards) while hiring musicians to perform what they cannot, TC match exoticism with alluring atmospheres, clever concepts with an oddly ominous soundfield.

The duoís record label, Eighteenth Street Lounge (ESL), is populated with like-minded sample surfers who provide international appeal. Operating out of their DC-based studios the Consulate, Hilton and Garza signed French funk punster Chris Joss, German sonic dabblers Sofa Surfers, Italian bossa nova guru Nicola Conte, and London collagists Les Hommes. All adhere to the TC æsthetic: cerebral electronic music that owes its soul to yesterday, not today. For Hilton and Garza, this translates to the jazz and bossa nova found in their 2001 Songs from the Verve Hi-Fi (Verve), a mix CD that included jazz, Latin, and bossa nova tracks by Elis Regina, Cal Tjader, Jimmy Smith, Willie Bobo, Chico Hamilton, Astrud Gilberto, Sergio Mendes, and Kenyon Hopkins.

The only problem with TCís collagist stew of world-traipsing styles and luxurious beats is the ennui that sometimes results when Hilton and Garza run out of ideas. The Richest Man in Babylon simmered on a bed of Middle Eastern vocals, æthereal samples, and dubbed-out atmospheres that all too frequently put one to sleep. The snore fest was mercifully interrupted by the Fela-esque "Liberation Front," a killer track of gut-busting horns, coiling bass, and funk groove.

Riding a hot learning curve, The Cosmic Game is the duoís best album yet, thanks not only to its better focus, integration of styles, and songwriting coherence but also to the inspired vocalists who make the tracks kick. It weaves psychedelic interludes with Third World textures, matching the late í60s sounds of Moog and Arp Odyssey synthesizers with far-flung global themes. Complemented by worthy vocalists (Wayne Coyne, Perry Farrell, David Byrne, Gigi), the tracks range from political tracts ("Marching the Hate Machines (Into the Sun)") to blissed-out explorations ("The Cosmic Game"), from Brazilian folk songs ("Pela Janela") to knockdown Afrobeat blow-outs ("The Heartís a Lonely Hunter").

Are Hilton and Garza at all concerned that they might look like global dilettantes sampling old records and ripping off indigenous styles for their own means? "The influences are very heartfelt," Garza tells me over the phone from a Manhattan hotel. "It is not like we listen to only modern music, or pop music. We listen to jazz, dub, Bollywood soundtracks; these are musics that mean a lot to us."

"When we sample from a bossa nova record, we understand that music," Hilton adds. "Same thing with Indian music. It is not a gimmick. That happened with bossa nova in the í60s. Everyone did bossa nova, just adding the beat. And you find that in electronic music today where people just sample a samba beat and think they are on the Brazilian tip. But Brazilian is a lot deeper than that when you get into harmony and melody, the way Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto constructed their music. It is not about sampling a loop and calling it Brazilian."

And the sounds that influenced The Cosmic Game donít stop at the obvious. "We are really into the easy-listening producers that were experimenting with psychedelic music in the í70s, like the Mystic Moods Orchestra," Hilton explains. "They had a song called ĎThe Cosmic Seaí thatís one of the most rocking rock songs you could ever hear. But they had also strings and Moogs and Clavinets and were very groundbreaking. We were thinking about records like that and that openness of production, trying to stay in that frame of mind for The Cosmic Game."

Issue Date: February 25 - March 3, 2005
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