Listening to a Thievery Corporation album is not so much of an active experience as a somewhat passive one. The electronic duo have proven themselves adept at creating atmosphere, setting moods that can be mellow or contemplative. For 16 years, musicians and DJs Eric Hilton and Rob Garza have combined electronica, chill, trip-hop and a touch of acid jazz to create pleasant grooves. They describe themselves as craftsmen of “musical soundscapes,” which perfectly summarizes their genre. With their new album Culture of Fear, Thievery Corporation continues their exploration of rare grooves and the audial approximation of relaxation.
Despite the album title, Culture of Fear rarely addresses specific political issues. The closest the duo comes is on the stellar title track, where guest rapper Mr. Lif ponders life after 9/11: “Or maybe we just like being afraid. Maybe we just so used to it at this point that it’s just a part of us, part of our culture,” he muses before the bass-heavy beat kicks in. The reggae-flavored “Overstand” continues in this vein, with vocalist Ras Puma decrying “fear without reason.” Puma also warns listeners to “keep your vision clearer” in “False Flag Dub,” another reggae-tinged track discouraging mass paranoia.
The rest of the album, however, steers clear of overtly political statements and instead focuses on their ambient sound. “Web of Deception” does contain the vaguely topical lyrics “All that we weave/Is a web of deceit,” intoned by a seductive female vocalist, the words intertwining with the shuffling beat. The retro soul sound exemplifies rare groove, a distant cousin of house which remixes vintage R&B beats and riffs with heavier bass and electronic effects. “Light Flares” continue the rare groove motif, with its infectious drum break permeating the instrumental.
Fans of Massive Attack (particularly their landmark Blue Lines album) and Mazzy Star should enjoy “Stargazer,” which is an intriguing mixture of trip-hop with a hint of reggae guitar. Portishead enthusiasts who like their ambient music with wispy female vocals (courtesy of Bitter:Sweet’s Shana Halligan) should appreciate “Where It All Starts,” “Is It Over?” and “Take My Soul,” which create a chilled-out mood. All one needs is a martini and a nightclub lounge to enhance the experience.
Other tracks utilize different elements to create atmospheric music. “Tower Seven” initially emits a ’60s vibe with its swirling organ, but introduces heavier guitar to root the track in modernity. Hints of Brazilian jazz stand out in “Safar (The Journey), although one wishes they would return to the bossa nova grooves Thievery Corporation explored on 2000′s The Mirror Conspiracy. On that album, tunes such as “Samba Tranquille,” “So Com Voce” (featuring guest vocalist Bebel Gilberto), and “Air Batucada” more convincingly spanned the gap between Brazilian sounds and electronica.
Culture of Fear should appease longtime Thievery Corporation fans who expect the sonic equivalent of a chilled-out atmosphere as well as musical collages. The duo’s ability to hop from one music genre to another keeps their sound interesting, setting them apart from other ambient artists. Those looking for a perfect accompaniment for a cocktail party, private dinner for two, or a laid-back evening lounging with friends at the club will find Culture of Fear an enjoyable listen.