Years ago a friend in DC passed along a four-song EP by two Rastas best known as the bouncing hype men of Thievery Corporation. They wore white pants and black jackets with puffy fedoras while wielding canes, throwing off accessories in pure lion-dreaded fury as the show's energy rises. They were Flavor Flav's ravings to Chuck D's social polarizing. Oftentimes their rants would amount to little more than pan-biblical theologizing with affirmative grunts to Jah. The EP pretty much sounded like the two Thievery guys trying to break out, the way Phil Collins (though not Peter Gabriel) broke out of Genesis, the way Robert Plant broke clean from Led Zeppelin, the way Hi-Tek produced records outside of Reflection Eternal. See-I's EP was thin, relied on a gratuitous sitar and mostly forgettable, though I still enjoyed them with Thievery.
Eight years taught Arthur "Rootz" and Archie "Zeebo" Steele an important lesson: stick with what you know. That meant flowing their patois above thick, bottom-heavy beats with epic horn stabs and ambient soundscapes. In some ways, the duo's self-titled debut is perhaps Thievery's most focused album to date, even though it's not a Thievery record, kind of like how Robert Plant finally found a voice alongside Alison Krauss that wasn't a Union Station album (and continued finding it on Band of Joy). See-I exhibits plenty of sonic parallels to their forebears, yet beyond associations this self-titled debut on Fort Knox Records is simply one damn fine album. "Dangerous" is that song you hear somewhere and demand to know its origin, meaningful poetics wrapped in dub. The hype songs -- "Haterz 24/7," "Soul Hit Man," "Blow Up" -- are tempered by a trio of gorgeous mellow closing tracks. And while some of these beats and horn lines sound recycled from The Cosmic Game, there's probably no better place to sample from. After two decades in training, these brothers are working it out.
Up until this point, my favorite track by the Austin-based Ocote Soul Sounds was a Thievery Corporation remix of "Tamarindio." It offered the original a warm pocket and bottom security that the band somewhat lacked. Make no mistake, the horns and bass lines of albums like Coconut Rock are killer. Antibalas founder Martín Perna and Adrian Quesada, the influential guitarist/bandleader in Grupo Fantasma and Brownout, created an exquisite new reality on modern Afro-Latin and funk-inspired grooves when forming Ocote. They were quickly signed to Thievery's ESL Recordings, making them kindred spirits of a sort.
What the band lacked on previous albums was a subtle push of percussion in the headphones, a slight lift of the snare and base to the kick. They had the whole nuevo-Os Mutantes meets Carlos Santana thing down, analog champions in the digital world. Thievery's Eric Hilton has given them that last little push by producing Taurus (ESL Recordings), possibly the finest album to come out of Perna's or Quesada's camps. The simplicity of beats like "Primavera" and "En El Temblor" create a broad range of rugs to cut. While these men have been accustomed to moving hips, Perna has long acted the political figure (Antibalas does mean "bullet proof"). His vocals on "STTP (Speak Truth to Power)" and especially "Pan y Circo" are his finest lyrical efforts to date. I can only imagine how good these songs translate live, and look forward to finding out soon.
What do you get when you combine musicians from Croatia, Macedona, Bosnia and Jamaica? There's no punch line to this one, but La Cherga's latest album, Revolve (Asphalt Tango) is certainly punchy. The Jamaican connection underlies a pop take on Balkan brass, creating the conditions for what could be a mess or bliss. I'll vote the latter on this fine 11-track outing. New lead singer Adisa Zvekic has a deep, hefty voice that oddly reminds me of Martha Gonzalez from Los Angeles's Quetzal. Spread out against the band's hyper riddims and formidable bass lines, along with the brass that runs the melodies, Zvekic adds lyrical splashes across a full-on dance album. At times the guitars get unruly and metalish ("One"), but based on grooves like "Sufi Dub," this band will go far. A reverberant melodica opens to a stable kick drum, the Balkan effect softer, more Black Ark-ish. Later, on "Votka Dot Kom," we hear a subdued Gogol Bordello, with Eugene Hutz charismatically winding over an acoustic guitar and sharp snare (only Eugene is played by Mc Killo Killo dropping some vodka-friendly hip-hop/sing-song indicative of earlier Ojos de Brujo). I'm loving the friendliness and nonchalance as well as the serious musicality of this group. Betting you will too.