Thievery Corporation, DJ Boy George

by Doug Rule
Published on October 31, 2002, 12:00am | Comments

Thievery Corporation
Richest Man in Babylon
Eighteenth Street Lounge Music

DJ Boy George
A Night In with Boy George: A Chillout Mix

Didn't you know? Washington is the hotbed of the latest trend in dance music today, chillout. Its epicenter is the Eighteenth Street Lounge, an exclusive, unidentified club that draws straight hipsters and foreign diplomats' kids, located near the new Lizard Lounge in South Dupont. After Vienna (not Virginia), D.C. outpaces any other city in chillout, according to the Wall Street Journal. You'd barely know about D.C.'s preeminence, though, from recorded music, which more regularly comes from New York, London or Paris. At its worst, chillout is glorified easy listening, pretentious elevator music by John Tesh/Yanni imitators or producers of cinematic scores instead of songs.

"Chillout" is often slapped on any type of music with a steady, unassuming groove, the latest in a line of catchall dance music sub-genres. At its best, it's essentially mid-tempo, house-style music with strong influences from Africa, India, the Middle East and Latin America -- basically World Music with a dance beat and, more often than not, English lyrics. Much of the music released on the Eighteenth Street Lounge Music label comes across as precisely the kind you'd expect to hear at your doctor's office and think nothing of. Many Eighteenth Street artists view themselves loftily as music educators bringing modern-day (smooth) jazz to new, DJ-centered audiences. Their often slow-paced, smooth-edged jazz can soothe you when you need that sort of thing (and when you need a break from Sade).

When it works, as it does on Thievery Corporation's latest, The Richest Man in Babylon, it also awes you with its deft incorporation of various musical influences -- salsa, reggae, Arabic, Indian -- and exotic musical instruments: sitar, conga drums, tablas. It's not always original. Nearly every melodic element of "Exilio (Exile)," for example, was copied from the 1997 Afro-Cuban All Stars CD. But it's always high concept and well-meaning.

Thievery Corporation is Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, who founded the Eighteenth Street Lounge. How you can tell the group is from Washington? It wears its politics on its album sleeves. The 34-page, bound booklet that accompanies the CD contains captivating black and white images, mostly of peoples in the midst of regional or national struggles. These, as well as the songs ("Heaven's Gonna Burn Your Eyes," "Omid (Hope)," "The Outernationalist") seem intended to comfort and spiritually nourish human rights activists after a long day of principled activism, and maybe to inspire the rest of us to take action. The title track and the barbed lyrics of "The State of the Union," in particular, seem aimed at complacent Americans to wake up and smell injustice. The credits refer to its recording site, D.C., as the "heart of Babylon." They don't mean that as a compliment.

Boy George's London location manifests itself in his international ensemble of songs on A Night In with Boy George: A Chillout Mix, which often calls to mind the glorious Britpop of the Boy's Culture Club days. Too bad he doesn't actually sing or offer any of his own songs here. But that's the worst that can be said. The Boy is quite the superb DJ, and this diverse collection presents psychedelic touches straight from Austin Powers' Britain (Jadell's "Stick It To Em"), early hip hop with a Jamaican flavor (Mr. Live's winsome "The Good Life"), and propulsive Indian pop taken right off the wonderful "Monsoon Wedding" soundtrack (Mychael Danna's "Aaj Mera Jee Kardaa"). Even throaty-voiced Neil Diamond's influence can be heard to surprisingly good effect (El Hula's "Augustine"). In short, a remarkable collection that you never grow tired of hearing, certainly more so than A Night Out with Boy George, released a few months prior. And far more so than other similar chillout mix CDs of recent vintage.

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