David Cope, a professor at the University Of California, Santa Cruz, has been experimenting with “algorithmic computer music” and “musical intelligence” in order to program a computer to compose its own music. It only makes sense that the main men behind Thievery Corporation, D.C. natives Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, would cite Cope as a shared interest: Not only does Cope explore the possibilities and boundaries of music, he works at a university nestled in a hippie/beach bum town an hour south of San Francisco with a penchant for protests (many of them naked), beards, drum circles and its comically huge pot smoking celebration every year on April 20.
Thievery Corporation’s latest album, Culture Of Fear, its sixth full-length studio release, fits right in with Cope and UCSC: Its overall spaced-out aesthetic remains chill and groovy, exploring socially conscious themes while meandering through hip-hop, classic psychedelia, jazz and dub. In that way, Culture Of Fear is the perfect neo-hippie album: It coasts in a psychedelic daze, is multicultural in scope but still a fan of Pink Floyd, political and maybe into conspiracy theories.
Boston rapper Mr. Lif sets the tone for the album in the title track by unleashing a pre-flow provocation. “Seems like they want us to be afraid,” Lif muses. “Maybe we’re just so used to it at this point that it’s just a part of us, a part of our culture.” His track is the most overtly political song on the album, which on the whole tends to embed its discontent and rebellion in layers of slinky synths, light snares and dreamy ambient sounds or downtempo tropical dub beats. Culture Of Fear is heavy on the psychedelic, by no means a total departure for past releases. In true Thievery style, the duo snagged a solid lineup for the album: Persian singer LouLou lays rich, Suzanne Vega-ish vocals over a pulsing rhythmic backtrack in “Take My Soul,” Bitter:Sweet’s Shana Halligan brings a Portishead vibe to “Is It Over?,” and Ras Puma contributes the words to “False Flag Dub.”
Despite Mr. Lif’s aggressive approach, Thievery Corporation has a talent for slipping dissent into listeners’ ears by smoothly embedding it deep in the tracks, which, for the number of instruments and the variety of different influences that appear, are remarkably well-composed. Even at its most far-out, the songs on Culture Of Fear always seem to know where they’re going, even if they choose to take the scenic route to get there.