There is something to be said for great packaging on an album. Taking a disc from its shrink-wrap and figuring out how to remove it isn’t a huge challenge, but why shouldn’t it be? We should have to work more at getting a recording from store to stereo, if only to appreciate the music a bit more. Thievery Corporation’s latest album, The Richest Man in Babylon, took a good seven minutes of concentrated effort before I figured out where the case was and how to remove the CD. Now that’s creative packaging.
Behind the red bull’s-eye cover is a 48-page booklet with a few liner notes and an abundance of photographs.ÊThe stark scenes depicted look more like a campaign for the ad council than album art, but they are still intriguing and effective portraits of everyday people. Through the images, Thievery Corporation is telling us that the richest man in Babylon is not the man with the most material pleasures. To its credit, this is one of the few times where a band’s music actually captures the feeling of the album art. Even with the sugar-coated production and the recent hype, many of the band’s songs fell flat.
When I first turned on the album, I was reminded of the French ethno-techno project Deep Forest. Both groups rely entirely on fitting “world music” into the Western vernacular with dance beats and simple meters. In the case of Thievery Corporation, these beats lack the intensity and the foresight of the 1992 debut of Deep Forest. Each track on The Richest Man in Babylon uses a scale or rhythm borrowed from a different part of the globe, but on the whole, there is a heavy Central and South American influence.
In general, the tracks contain derivative samples and ethnic instruments watered down in uninteresting ways. The first and fourteenth tracks (“Heaven’s Gonna Burn Your Eyes” and “Until the Morning”) feature Icelandic singer Emillana Torrini. Until I checked the liner notes, I thought it was Bjork making a cameo. The Farsi song “Omid (Hope)” sounds hauntingly like Stereolab and the title track is stolen straight from Fela Kuti’s scrapbook.
It’s often difficult to understand what band members are trying to comment on musically when it seems like they really do not have anything interesting to say. Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, the duo that fronts as Thievery Corporation, do not even consider themselves musicians, and they claim they are making their music for themselves. It does not make a whole lot of sense for them to expect us to get anything out of the album when they are not writing for the listener, and they are not really interested in taking risks with their music. Garza and Hilton are not pushing any musical boundaries, nor do they intend to.
Despite its flaws, the album is well-integrated cover to cover. The band name, album and song titles, artwork, lyrics and music are all ‘N Sync (so to speak). With such a successful package, it’s often easy to over produce, but every aspect of The Richest Man in Babylon manages to be perfectly understated. From the panning to the final mix, the sound engineer deserves mention for a great head phones album. In the end, the music of Thievery Corporation seems more appropriate for a 2 a.m. soundtrack than any careful listen.