When producers Rob Garza and Erik Hilton, collectively known as Thievery Corporation, released their debut CD Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi in 1997, it carved out a place for slower tempos in a world dominated by pumping house and hyperactive drum and bass. Thievery's signature sound -- a catchy fusion of jazzy grooves, dub, bossa nova, hip-hop beats and a swanky jet-set aesthetic -- proved that down-tempo electronica wasn't going to stay confined to the chill-out room.
Five years, three albums and countless remixes later, the pair's deft production skills are on display again in the band's latest full-length, The Richest Man in Babylon. In past efforts, Thievery tracks were longer instrumental and beat-driven affairs, but here the cuts are shorter and mostly vocal-driven. French chanteuse LouLou, who appeared on Thievery's previous release, The Mirror Conspiracy, croons over several tracks, as does the ethereal-voiced Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini. Notch from Born Jamericans and bossa singer Patrick Dos Santos also appear.
Unfortunately, these additions only accentuate a mellowing trend that began on Conspiracy, where Garza and Hilton began to turn away from the edgier rhythmic fusions and dubby elements that made Thievery so fun to listen to in the first place. On Richest Man, they put the beats in the back seat, focusing instead on tepid Afrobeat grooves, bland bossa, and their mutual predilection for breathy female vocals. Yawn. At its best, Richest Man reprises past successes with tracks like "From Creation" and "State of the Union," but at its worst there are tracks that sound like well-crafted adult contemporary.
Richest Man is Thievery's most timid effort thus far, which is a shame, because despite the album's shortcomings, the superior quality of its production shows that Garza and Hilton have the skills to take much bigger risks.