Review: Thievery Corporation’s Radio Retaliation

Metromix Louiseville hit the nail on the head when they described Thievery Corporation‘s new album, Radio Retaliation, as “a quietly funky soundtrack for the MoveOn.org generation”.

The album, which was released early on iLike and Facebook, is fairly true to the classic Thievery sound – loungey, organic, multicultural. This time around, however, they deliver a decidedly more overt political message. Properly Chilled posits that they deliver their message “through a swirling, smoky kaleidoscope that will leave most people who listen to it largely unaware of, yet affected (if only subconsciously) by its social and political text”. I couldn’t agree more. After a few listens, here is my breakdown of the album.

First up is Sound the Alarm (feat. Sleepy Wonder) which kicks off with a hair-raising siren. A solid reggae beat, guitar riff and bass line set the stage for the minimalistic but passionate lyrics. Not a whole lot happens in this song, but all throughout it’s an enjoyable dub track.

Mandala features Anoushka Shankar, daughter of legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar. If you are a sucker for sitar, you will like this track. A playful twangy melody glides over the layers of deep driving bass, heavy brass and percussion. Some clubby turntable scratching and electronic beats punctuate the song, giving it a timeless feel.

Radio Retaliation again features Sleepy Wonder. As the title track of the album, this is a good example of classic Thievery reggae. Background instrumentals don’t vary much, so your attention is drawn to the lyrics, which have plenty to say.

Vampires has a funky upbeat feel. As musicOMH points out, “the swaying horns and polyrhythmic drums of Vampires do a commendable job of disguising the song’s clunky political metaphors“. The song very appropriately features Femi Kuti, eldest son of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian “pioneer of Afrobeat music, human rights activist, and political maverick.” (And yes, if you are still playing the Sarah Palin drinking game, you can count that use of “maverick” and have a drink.)

In Hare Krsna, the recognizable voice of Seu Jorge, Brazilian pop samba icon (possibly better known to his American fans as the David-Bowie-covers-in-Portuguese soundtrack guy for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) adds a scratchy rawness to what would otherwise be a little too smooth of a trip hop track. The title might lead you to expect an overtly Indian sound but instead you get classic Thievery muted basslines, looped guitars, brass sections… Only after listening closely do you catch what sounds like a dhol in the background. That, and of course, Seu is singing “Hare Krsna” over and over…

El Pueblo Unido, featuring Verny Varela, is probably one of the best songs on the album. The juxtaposition of jazzy Latin sounds and loungey dub gives it sort of a Buena Vista Social Club meets Morcheeba vibe.

(The Forgotten People) starts off with a sad clarinet intro and quickly picks up the pace with forceful sitar, dhol, and some electronic beats. The bass line gives this track a much darker sound than the rest of the album. A perfect song to listen to when you’re feeling a little dark yourself. Intense, worldly, and pleasing to the ear.

33 Degree features the soft haunting vocals of Zee over mellow trip hop style instrumentals. Part space age synth, part loungey beats, this track utilizes minimal percussion and a smooth blend of sounds to send you on a quiet thoughtful journey.

For Beautiful Drug, think AIR. Heavily reminiscent of the Virgin Suicides soundtrack, this one. The smoky vocals of Jana Andevska, who sounds a bit like Cat Power, gives the track a lazy, melancholy texture. You can almost picture an emaciated bored French socialite lounging in an opium den somewhere unimpressed by her glamorous yet soulless life and yearning for a different reality or perhaps a lost love…

La Femme Parallel is super mellow. LouLou‘s gentle vocals calmly drive this ambient track forward. Suitable background music for a loungey nightclub in any cosmopolitan city. You can imagine hearing this song playing softly while well dressed city types sip their martinis and steal sultry glances at strangers in the dim smoky room.

Retaliation Suite launches into a brassy funky groove with lots of triangle, some smooth sax, and provocative vocal samples. The political rhetoric contrasts nicely with the relaxed head-nodding qualities of the instrumentals. A great listen whether you play it in the background or listen to the words.

The Numbers Game is more of a departure from Thievery’s typical chill sound. Funky percussion, lots of soul and brass accompany the “Godfather of Go Go”, Chuck Brown, as he sings about the “same old game” and tells you to “shake out your mind”. Definitely a toe-tapping number.

The Shining Path is bass-heavy throughout and laced with haunting synths patterns. In the second half of the song, a tabla beat drops giving the song a more organic element, sort of a drum-circle vibe.

Blasting Through the City features Notch, whose earnest lyrics implore you to: “feel the struggle, but don’t give up the fight”. This reggae-infused downtempo track simultaneously makes you want to kick back on an island somewhere and join the a revolution.

Sweet Tides (feat. LouLou) A downtempo groove with a positive and uplifting feel to it. When LouLou sings in English, somehow she loses a bit of her charm, but the vocals are still very pretty. Seemingly uniform at first, a more triumphant hi-hat beat drops about halfway in to pick up the energy. The muted trumpets that fade out at the end of the song give it a nice polish.

In conclusion, we have another great accomplishment by the DJ duo. Some may say they went a little overboard with the number of guest artists, but it certainly adds diversity to the overall sound. The album is unique in that it preserves enough of the elements of Thievery Corporation’s core sound and feel and yet adds some new dynamics including the ramped up political undertones. I say two thumbs up and go buy/download/steal/burn (or do whatever it is you do to get new music) Radio Retaliation. If nothing else, spread the word. It’s worth hearing.

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