I was in Washington, D.C. recently, and I decided to go to the Eighteenth Street Lounge that I had heard so much about. Started by Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, the bar/nightclub went on to share its name with the duo’s record label, a jazzed-out collection of down-tempo hipster sustenance that mirrors their own output to such an extreme that it’s almost indistinguishable.
Stepping into the unmarked, dimly-lit hallway that led to the second-floor bar, I began to understand what the detractors of the Thievery Corporation have against them. That became even clearer after listening to their new compilation (don’t call it a mix) album: It isn’t so much the music, but the lifestyle.
The ten-dollar drinks, the expensive suits that are worn with unbuttoned shirts and freshly molded hair — it all fits the stereotype. The image is one of elitism without sophistication, financial superiority lacking the cultural leadership that is so valued by music aficionados. It’s a yuppie stereotype, obviously, of a twenty- or thirty-something making way too much money to spend it on anything but expensive wine to serve at parties where they play mixes created by people who have a far wider knowledge of music because they can afford to buy someone else’s taste.
For those of us who believe in the down-tempo groove but don’t subscribe to the down-tempo life, the Thievery Corporation has been an on-again, off-again love affair. Mirror Conspiracy, their breakthrough second record, is a pillar of the scene (check “Lebanese Blone” for a perfect melding of electronica and trendy world music influences), and their DJ Kicks offering, though certainly inferior to the best of the series from the likes of Kruder and Dorfmeister or Stereo MCs, is a solid set that demonstrates both their excellence in selection and mixing. But their last album, 2002’s The Richest Man in Babylon, was slow-going, and most of their compilations have been forgettable at best.
The Outernational Sound continues to demonstrate Hilton and Garza’s excellent taste in world music. David Snell’s accurately-titled “International Flight” starts it off, and through a great orchestral cover of the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” and “Re-Return of an Original Artform,” a song RJD2 fans may recognize from his use of the vocal samples (“Part two, are you ready?”), this is excellent music from start to finish.
But the mixing here is poor at best. There are almost no smooth transitions, the styles start and stop, and the mix as a whole lacks a cohesive emotional arc. It’s surprising how much thought they put into what they included here and how little they put into making sure it all went well together. Worse, some of the best songs aren’t allowed to play out or mesh with any other songs, making you feel cheated out of every opportunity to enjoy the duo’s talents. DJ mixes are flooding the market these days, and anyone who has listened to any of them knows selection is never as important as flow. This is a failed mix in every sense of the word.