Whether or not they’re aware of it, there’s a lot of pressure on Thievery Corporation right now. Electronica has been on a slow descent for the past couple years. Each successive Chemical Brothers album has been on a downward slide toward mediocrity, while Fatboy Slim got just plain bad. The Prodigy seems to have been permanently trapped in 1997, Orbital and The Orb have called it quits and DJ Shadow is unlikely to ever top Endtroducing. Paul Oakenfold always sucked. Goldie never lived up to the hype. And we always liked that Erlend Øye dude better when he sounded like Art Garfunkel. Take into account that all the best Ninja Tune artists have been AWOL for a few years, save for Amon Tobin, who has been releasing video game soundtracks, and you’re left with very few artists with potential to program any life back into this genre’s failing C drive.
But there is Thievery Corporation, the American duo of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, who are more likely to be heard on NPR-syndicated programs like Metropolis than a foam party. Their latest, The Cosmic Game, is, more or less, the sort of record that Thievery Corporation has been creating for the past half-decade or so. And though The Cosmic Game isn’t leaps and bounds beyond their previous record, The Richest Man in Babylon, it ages better than big beat did, fortunately. Consisting of sixteen W Hotel-worthy über-hip downtempo tracks, Game finds the Corp. revisiting a sound that served them well in the past. And for the most part, it succeeds.
Thievery Corporation, ever the definition of cool, have brought along a few guests to further their agenda of chill. While Babylon featured the vocal talents of Emiliana Torrini, Game sees the duo upping the star-power, this time collaborating with Perry Farrell, David Byrne and The Flaming Lips, as well as lesser-known acts like Gunjan and Patrick De Santos. Yet despite the big names, it’s the TC who shines through most prominently. “Marching the Hate Machines (Into the Sun),” despite featuring the unmistakable vocals of Wayne Coyne, remains a soulful downtempo electronica track, suitable for a night of mojitos and looking sexy. Likewise, Perry Farrell’s appearance on “Revolution Solution” does nothing to hinder the track, despite his less-than-noteworthy efforts lately, be they with Jane’s Addiction or solo. David Byrne’s spot on here, the dancier, Afrobeat-influenced “The Heart’s a Lonely Hunter,” is easily the best, as both his performance and that of Garza and Hilton are equally outstanding.
Guests or no guests, what Thievery Corporation does best is meld trip-hop with jazz and dub into an altogether smooth and lovely combination. “Warning Shots” sees them attempting more straightforward hip-hop, while the title track is pure psychedelic, dubby bliss. “Shiva” takes influences from the Far East, while “Ambicion Eterna” finds its muse in Latin America. And the Brazilian rhythms of “Pela Janela” are absolutely stunning. “Sol Tapado” is one of the funkier numbers here, mixing Latin textures with a solid beat and a deep, soulful bassline.
The Cosmic Game is a global trip, as Garza and Hilton take their ultra-cool cocktail party around the world, picking up sounds from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and the good ol’ United States along the way. Though they may not be taking electronica into a new, unexplored realm, they’re allowing it to continue with dignity and grace, and, of course, style. Thievery Corporation isn’t the slightest bit concerned about Big Beat, though, which may mean that its niche in the electronic world will likely go the way of the mood ring. I can’t exactly say I blame them — it’s not like anyone’s having sex to Handsome Boy Modeling School these days.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.