Can somebody say, “Awwww yeah”? Washington DC’s Thunderball open up their second album, Scorpio Rising, with a slab of superfly pimp-funk that would do Shaft proud. With amazing help from guest vocalist Mustafa Akbar, channelling Curtis Mayfield, and a great backbeat that adds a 21st century drum-and-bass propulsiveness to that ’70s groove, “Heart of the Hustler” represents a quantum leap forward from Thunderball’s first album Ambassadors of Style. While that disc was a solid debut, it remained for the most part squarely within the confines of the sound established by Eighteenth Street Lounge godfathers Thievery Corporation — dub-heavy forays into lounge, drum-and-bass and trip-hop, with lots of hooky drum loops, abstract keyboards, and female vocals. Those elements are still present on Scorpio Rising, but Thunderball’s emerging identity as something grittier and funkier than the Thieves holds real promise.
Thunderball, a.k.a. Sid Barcelona and Steve Raskin, haven’t entirely purged themselves of the Thievery Lite syndrome suffered by so many Eighteenth Street Lounge artists — on tracks like “Golden” and “Angela’s Lament”, they lay on tons of the jazzy atmospherics that are the Thieves’ stock-in-trade, creating easy-listening tracks that are nice but highly derivative. Far better are tunes like “Domino”, another riff on funk/soul blaxploitation soundtracks, complete with wah-wah guitar and melodramatic strings, and the outstanding “Stereo Tonic”, which layers looped scratches, b-boy vocals, sitars and even a Steve Miller Band sample on top of an ominous trip-hop groove. It’s when Thunderball let their love of black urban music lead the way that they’re at their most interesting.
Elsewhere, Scorpio Rising stretches Thunderball’s maturing sound in several new directions, with mixed results. The title track and “On the Sly” both offer great rides on sly basslines, swinging effortlessly between spy-movie menace and soul-brother strut (there’s even a little Latin rock thrown in “Scorpio Rising” courtesy of Rob Myers, who provides great, versatile guitar work throughout the whole album). “Vibrations” combines elements of trip-hop and nu-school breaks with Eastern-flavored flutes and chimes. “Solar” is an interesting but innocuous blend of bossa nova and drum-and-bass beats that devolves into another Thievery knockoff, while “Vai Vai” borrows heavily from the more uptempo d&b end of the Thieves’ sonic spectrum. The worst moment on Scorpio Rising has to be “Sapphire”, a misguided collaboration with vocalist Johnna M., who sounds pretty good as part of the soundscape on “Vai Vai” and “Solar” but is unbearable here, pushed into the foreground singing a cheesy jazz-pop melody over a watered-down drum-and-bass groove.
Still, while not perfect, Scorpio Rising is a very solid piece of funk-infused loungetronica, and probably the best album to come out of the Eighteenth Street Lounge label since Thievery Corporation’s own The Mirror Conspiracy. If the guys in Thunderball can outgrow their penchant for robbing the Thieves, and further develop their innovative combinations of old-school funk and soul with new-school breakbeats and drum-and-bass, they will become a major force in the world of electronic music.