Thievery Corporation's Rob Garza and Eric Hilton are businessmen: label honchos, club owners, and nearly platinum artists who earn fun money by licensing their tracks to clients such as Martini & Rossi, Citibank, and Lincoln. Factor in the duo's noted sartorial sophistication, and the title of this, their third proper album (nicked from a financial-planning book) sounds like an aristocrat's vaunt rather than the anti-greed centerpiece to an album full of one-worlder protest.
America's leading chill-out purveyors, Thievery Corporation make lounge-y but rarely languid music roughly akin to Austrian downtempo duo Kruder & Dorfmeister. But unlike K&D, TC's sound is marked less by originality than by its sleek pastiche of mid-tempo beats adorned with bossa nova, dub, Indian, and Middle Eastern trappings. Electric pianos are employed for mellow whole-note chords and simple lines, while wah-wah guitars and swelling synths provide atmosphere. These elements conspired to make the duo's second album, The Mirror Conspiracy, sound at times like cosmopolitan Superfly instrumentals: cool, but dull if you're not slightly tipsy or at a swanky nightclub.
Babylon continues its predecessor's move toward traditional song form, and it's in that mode that the album shines. Most impressive is the title song's yearning, minor-key reggae, and "Meu Destino," a lilting bossa nova tune featuring vocalist Patrick De Santos, whose lovely tenor and falsetto flourishes recall Brazilian pop singer Milton Nascimento. Though De Santos steals the show, the producers prove their mettle when they sneakily change the song's rhythm to a head-bobbing funk, and then bring back the Brazilian rhythm without, well, missing a beat.
Hilton and Garza seem to have a John Hammond-like knack for finding great singers, whom they treat as equal partners and call on for lyrics--sung in English, French, Farsi, Spanish, and Portuguese, and frequently protesting injustice and government corruption. (The "wicked stench" of exploitation is sniffed at, as is the "mockery" of government.) Thievery Corporation alumnae Pam Bricker and Loulou again impress with quiet sultriness. The only singer who doesn't pass muster is bush-league Björk Emiliana Torrini, whose preciously Air-y and Tricky turns are the album's low points.
In contrast to the generally well-wrought vocal showcases, many of the album's instrumentals are inchoate, pleasant but adrift, and absent the hooks that have marked wordless TC gems such as "2001" and "Indra." For example, the dopily titled "Facing East" is a Moroccan-club fusion redolent of the most boring acid jazz or of cheese whizzes Deep Forest.
On Babylon, Garza and Hilton stand on a promontory of catholic inspiration that overlooks a sea of tedium, and they fall in more than once. But even when they're, like in that Stevie Smith poem, "not waving but drowning," it's a drowning suffered so elegantly that you race to be the first one out with the life raft.
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