With a backdrop of politically hard-wired audiences, debt-crisis debates and terror alerts, Washington, D.C., can be a tumultuous place, to say the least. To smooth things out a bit—at least with a brief sonic vacation—there’s Thievery Corporation, the capital city’s mainstay DJ duo.
The group offers multilayered tunes that simultaneously bubble with undertones about the nation’s political deficiencies and glide on a trip-hop-induced lounge vibe. Thievery indiscriminantly takes cues from every corner of the globe, creating a musical melting pot in multicultural D.C.
These electronica sounds, like those on Thievery’s new album Culture of Fear or from artists on Thievery-owned label ESL and other genre-bending acts, fill Eighteenth Street Lounge. The establishment—co-owned by Eric Hilton, one half of Thievery—sees slick DJs mingling over martinis with Capitol Hill workers and lobbyists. Unless a concert is under way, the music serves mostly as a backdrop for lively political discussion.
The lounge isn’t generally a place where conservative congressmen, like, say, Utah’s Rep. Jason Chaffetz or Sen. Orrin Hatch—can you imagine?—would kick back. The dreamers on barstools are hip and mostly liberal, which is currently fairly representational of the city, says Rob Garza, the other half of Thievery. Garza moved to San Francisco more than a year ago, but returns frequently and keeps his finger on the city’s pulse.
“Since Obama got elected, overall, D.C. has been a really great, booming place to be—the energy is young and people are excited,” he says, adding that the various communities—be they artistic or political—are all abuzz, talking about the debt crisis and the War on Terror, among other things.
“What gains have we gotten from [the War on Terror] and what’s really happening? Most people can’t tell you why we are in Iraq and Afghanistan, exactly. I think those are the things we’re touching on on some of these songs,” Garza says, referring to Culture of Fear, the duo’s 2011 release.
The jet-setting DJs also delve into the surveillance society that Garza says we live in. “It’s the kind of things like going through the airport and being screened and patted down that are getting people conditioned to being watched. I think that’s something that transcends political parties, war budgets and what’s going on right now in D.C.,” he says.
The album’s title song, “Culture of Fear,” especially digs into the government’s not-so-subtle presence in citizens’ daily lives, post 9/11. The track was originally planned merely as a single, but Hilton and Garza liked the theme so much they spun a record out of it. The straight-up hip-hop track, a rarity for Thievery, featuring Mr. Lif, is weak-kneed due to a lack of conviction—the lyrics, without hard-hitting emphasis and specifics, merely scratch the issue’s surface.
To borrow the Homeland Security Advisory System’s color-coded warning for a CD review, Culture of Fear, as an album, comes in at somewhere slightly above yellow. While it isn’t incredible like previous efforts—think The Richest Man in Babylon—Thievery sticks to their basic formula of worldly trip-hop, which makes for quality albums and doesn’t handicap their live performances. The stand-out tracks are the instrumentals “Light Flares” and “Tower Seven,” which, picturesque as they are, hint at the band’s previous music triumphs and, possibly, what’s to come from them later this year.
A slow, cinematic-sounding album with Bossa Nova flair, Saudade—which basically means “contented melancholy” in Portuguese—was being hashed out before Culture of Fear. Garza says now that they’re back on it, they’re “coming close” to a release.
After 16 years and seven albums, this effort brings their sound almost full circle. Garza recalls that he and Hilton first bonded over the Latino-infused soundtrack music of the late ’60s and early ’70s, whose sound and scene inspired them. “You [had] these musicians who were just really experimenting, not just musically, but maybe also taking drugs and stuff, and exploring all these different styles. That, for us, is a really exciting time period because you have all of this cross-pollination of ideas,” Garza says.
It’s an interesting change from political undertones, which might just be what the band, and the capital city needs—if only for a brief moment.
Red Butte Garden
300 Wakara Way
Thursday, Sept. 1, 7:30 p.m.