THUNDERBALL "Cinescope" ESL FORT KNOX RECORDINGS "The New Gold Standard" Fort Knox URSULA 1000 "Here Comes Tomorrow" ESL

Friday, December 22, 2006

FIRST YOU LAY DOWN a groove, probably dub- or reggae-derived. Then you loop a riff, preferably exotic. And finally -- just to be safe -- you inject some irony. That's the original "down-tempo" formula developed by Washington's Thievery Corporation, and it's still employed by other acts that record for the duo's ESL Music, even as the Corporation itself has turned more to live instrumentation and socially conscious themes.

There was a dollop of 007 soundtrack music in Thunderball's original recipe, which explains the group's Bondian name. The title of the new "Cinescope" promises more imaginary-movie scores and opens and closes with skillful examples of the genre: "The Road to Benares" and "Last Flight Out." In between, however, the trio and its collaborators -- who include hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa -- founder in a swamp of fake funk. The first track to feature Bambaataa, "Electric Shaka," is a respectable exercise in vocoder chant and Bollywood swing, but several pieces that follow are cheesy, or at least fatally unironic. (Bambaataa actually seems serious about his "thunder in the jungle, y'all" refrain.) Fortunately, the set finds its way again with such pieces as the pseudo-samba "Chicachiquita" and a dub-meets-strings instrumental whose title, "Lost Vagueness," shows that Thunderball does retain a sense of humor about its music.

Bambaataa also appears on "Radio Free DC," the lively (and socially conscious) number that opens "The New Gold Standard," a collection of tracks recorded or produced by the Fort Knox Five. That's no coincidence: Three of the Five are also in Thunderball. The album, which includes contributions credited to Rex Riddem, Speedy Consuela and others, is generally more song-oriented than "Cinescope," although the distinctions are not sharp. "The Brazilian Hipster," one of the six Fort Knox Five selections, could easily be a Thunderball creation. Yet most of the set, which closes with the thumps and backward swoops of Liftoff's "Kool It Man," is a little more emphatic than the Five's sibling outfit. If "The New Gold Standard" never accelerates to rave-party speed, it's more up-tempo than down.

"Ohayo gozaimasu" -- Japanese for "good morning" -- is one of the taglines of "Kaboom," the playful track that opens Ursula 1000's "Here Comes Tomorrow." One of ESL's out-of-town acts, Ursula mastermind Alex Gimeno is from Miami, not Tokyo, but musically he's all over the place. This conceptually goofy yet musically adept album includes such diverse tunes as a rowdy homage to Gary Glitter-style stomp-rock, "Hello! Let's Go to a Disco," and a globe-spanning bossa nova, "Arrastao," with intervening stops at Prince ("Electrik Boogie"), Madness ("Two Tone Rocka") and David Bowie (the title track). There are lots of guest performers, but the sensibility is all Ursula 1000's. He's the one-man party with a thousand faces.

-- Mark Jenkins

Appearing Friday at the Rock & Roll Hotel.

Listen to an audio clip of Thunderball

Listen to an audio clip of Fort Knox Recordings

Listen to an audio clip of Ursula 1000

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