Thursday, January 19, 2012

Albums of 2011 # 4: Thievery Corporation - Culture of Fear

If someone had said to me at the start of 2011 that a Thievery Corporation album would become one of my “most listened to” albums of the year, I’d have picked up the phone and dialled a shrink – making the first appointment for said individual, and the second appointment for yours truly. But strange things tend to happen in my little world of music consumerism, and it turns out that is exactly what happened, with Culture of Fear proving itself to be my biggest musical surprise of the year.

I guess, in retrospect, I’ve always harboured something of a soft spot for Thievery Corporation – the duo’s past forays into dub have never been less than impressive, and although it’s been a while since I’ve listened to any “electronica” or “chillout” with any regularity, I’ve always considered Thievery Corporation to be one of the least bland outfits dabbling in those murky waters.

One other big selling point about the duo’s music is that a lot of it is politically motivated; these guys may be American, but that has never stopped them from calling it exactly as they see it, particularly in terms of US foreign policy and when campaigning more generally on issues like global poverty. On Culture of Fear – album number six – it would seem that organised religion is the primary target, and the eclectic nature of the music (dub, electro funk, hip hop, ambient/chill) is enhanced considerably by a powerful set of words.

Admittedly there are parts of the album where the controls are set to snooze – regular collaborator LouLou (no, not the Scottish minx) provides a soft feminine vocal to a couple of electronica-style tracks – but those parts appear more like extended interludes, lightweight counterpoints, or simply moments of warm fluffy relief between the harder-edged angles being explored.

The opening one-two combo of the funky ‘Web of Deception’, followed immediately by the edgy hip hop of the title track (featuring a hard-hitting rap from someone called Mr Lif), had my ears pricked right from the outset. By the time I got to the slightly spaced out dub of tracks like ‘Stargazer’, ‘False Flag Dub’, and (especially) ‘Overstand’, I was completely hooked. After that first listen, I just knew Culture of Fear would be an album I’d return to; what I didn’t know was just how frequently I’d do so over a prolonged period. ‘False Flag Dub’ and ‘Overstand’ both feature the superb vocals of one Ras Puma, and it strikes me that one of the great strengths of Thievery Corporation is their choice of collaborators (or vocalists) ... who, more often than not, sprinkle just the right amount of stardust atop the duo’s bits and beats.

Overall, while Culture of Fear doesn’t exactly push any new boundaries, it does offer a great deal of musical variety, a lot of food for thought (lyrically), and the whole package works well as a start-to-finish listen.

Download: the title track, plus ‘Web of Deception’, ‘Stargazer’, ‘False Flag Dub’ (video below), ‘Overstand’, and ‘Tower Seven’.

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