For a while, it seemed that every decade spawned two or more major musical movements. The 1950s brought us R&B and rock 'n' roll; the 60s - the British Invasion and Motown/soul; the 70s - disco and punk; the 80s -- hip hop/rap and synthpop; the 90s -- techno and grunge but the first decade of the new millennium did not produce any real 'game changer'. In fact you might as well name it the 'hybrid decade', for such is the crisscrossing of styles - even giving rise to the term 'mashups' when pushed to extremes. This cross-pollination of genres is a by-product of the international independent internet era, eschewing the more traditional-confined major label of the past.
Such is not the case with Eighteenth Street Lounge Music. The name may not instantly ring a bell, nor for that matter, that of Federico Aubele - unless of course you are well connected into the present lounge scene. ESL Music is the brainchild of DJ/producers Rob Garza and Eric Hilton - both of Thievery Corporation fame - whom in 1996 created the Washington-based label to feature numerous artists of mostly eclectic though still accessible music, such as Shawn Lee, Frenchman Chris Joss and Ancient Astronauts. The duo's label was itself an offshoot of the Eighteenth Street Lounge situated in Washington DC. Frustrated by not being able to play their music wherever and whenever they felt like it, DJs Hilton, Farid (Ali) Nouri and Yama Jewayni got together and acquired a vacant historic Victorian mansion. After renovating it, constructing a DJ booth and installing a sound system, they opened the chic lounge in April 1995 to great success.
Argentinian born Federico Aubele is not what you would call a newcomer to the music scene. Playing since he was twelve, the singer-songwriter has already four albums under his belt fusing his native country's tango with Jamaican dub/reggae, American hip hop, lounge and various Latin sounds. After sending a demo to ESL Music, the dynamic duo signed him and released the album Gran Hotel Buenos Aires; making it his 2004 full-length debut. Mixing elements of tango with hip hop and dub beats is nothing new; back in 2000, the Paris-based Gotan Project even added electronic sounds to its recipe and eventually went on releasing four studio albums plus numerous 10 and 12 inch singles (Aubele has also released 10 inch singles). So in that sense Federico Aubele's Berlin 13 while not perhaps a musical ground-breaking album, represents nonetheless a different flavor or interpretation of tango-nuevo and should be judged on its own merit.
Just like the Misstress Barbara album evaluated in this month's issue, there is absence of vinyl. Again this does not make sense especially coming from a label historically, deeply-rooted in DJ subculture and should be addressed immediately.
The double gatefold cardboard jacket features mainly monochromatic hues of pale green and purple. The 'left wing' displays the acknowledgements while the 'right wing' contains the CD along with Aubele's picture when folded, leaving the credits printed in the center. Song lyrics and pictures are printed in an eight-page booklet pursuing the same color tones. The packaging is rather more subdued and elegant than flashy. The CD label is mostly mauvish which is not ideal for maximum data extraction compared to black or a darker shade. On high resolution audio systems, this could sound 'cooler' than a good (EAC) CD-R copy. Produced and mixed by Federico Aubele at The Consulate in Washington DC. By sheer coincidence with this months’ other review, the mastering was also done by Emily Lazar and Joe Laporta at The Lodge, NYC; making it the latter team's third CD under evaluation lately.
"Berlin" opens the set with Spanish
acoustic guitar, followed by bandoneón and mid-tempo beat. Soon, Aubele
accompanied by Natalia Clavier sing in unison. Panned electronic details echo in
background in dub-style or 'Roland space echo' efx. Good tonal balance overall
with one nice deep bass thud recurring once per 4 meter bar. Refreshingly for a
recent release, the track is not too loud nor heavily compressed.
"No One" continues pretty much the same
mid-tempo rhythm without the low thud. Aubele's vocals are a bit far back in the
mix which fits the genre. Perfect tonal balance plus airier highs; again light
on compression and loudness yielding non-fatiguing sound.
"In Your Name" starts out with what sounds like audio samples taken from Forbidden Planet - space sounds. Unexpectedly a 'classic' disco rhythm beat a la Salsoul Orchestra/Philly Sound circa 1976-77, plays a 32-beat intro (perfect for DJ mixing) thanks to drummer Charles Staab. Aubele's voice is more upfront in the mix sounding close in timbre and style to Canadian singer and poet Leonard Cohen. Romantic Argentian-esque chords. Gradually Spanish guitar comes on stronger. Temporarily the beat stops leaving just the vocals plus guitar. With the beat back on, romantic violin-like sound and female back vocals adds to the mix bringing a 'dreamy mood'. Perfect tonal balance continues.
Back to a slower tempo with "Bohemian Rhapsody In Blue", this time introducing reggae influences. Good syncopated kick rhythm. Aubele's singing is ever more suggestive of Cohen, especially with Clavier singing in unison during the chorus. At one point the beat stops; Spanish guitar takes on 'dubbish' delay efx; beat restarts; reverberated bandoneón plus Mauro Refosco's percs augment the mix. Towards the coda, sounds are getting more and more dissonant, ending like notes played on prepared piano.
"Kreuzberg" presents an uptempo instrumental track with 'crunchy' tech sounds. This is the first instance where the general tonal balance disappoints, caused in part by higher compression and loudness maximizing, although still tolerable. Kick drum could be closer in the mix; the long decay echos are a bit too dominating. Very repetitive, almost filler-up material makes it the least interesting track in music and sound.
"Efemera" brings back the good heavy grunt and groove, sounding quite weighty. Singer Ka reminds me of Portishead's Beth Gibbons in melodic style mixed in with some Gotan Project. Her vocal delivery is very attractive bringing a darker feel to the song. Aubele's creative back vocals are deliberately distorted and bandwidth limited. This is one of the strongest track in both departments.
"Lágrimas Viejas" begins with acoustic guitar plus delay efx; vocals alternate between Spanish and English. Originally the rhythmic beat startles us coming on a quarter note before the 'one' which is much more effective that way than coming on the 'one'. Great sounding punchy front kick and slightly dirty hi-hat 'drag' the groove. Guitar and bandoneón bring some lovely chord changes and altering the ambience. Beat stops for the break; superb panned efx with awesome sound textures while backward-reversed sounds would fit well in a musiquecon crète context. In my opinion this is the best track of the CD for songcraft and sonics.
"Ojalá" has an interesting beat intro,
panned delays and artistic distortions. Clavier is on vocals. Fine sound going
deep in lows. Musically a bit deja vu in main song structure.
"13" is quite uptempo. Aubele is back
behind the mike. At midpoint, an interesting change of sound texture in rhythm
with EQ thickening before coming back in sound similar to the first part. The
coda pushes creative distortions to the front.
"El Miedo" is well chosen as the
album's finale with a darkish dissonant guitar chord intro. Aubele's Spanish
vocals are artistically bandwidth-limited adding ever more delay efx while
drummer Jerry Busher's beats become ever more disco'ish.
All in all, Federico's latest album Berlin 13 while not re-inventing the wheel, successfully keeps interest in the lounge-tango-dub hybrid to merit a positive recommendation and should appeal very much to any Gotan Project fan. Sonically the CD is well mixed and engineers Emily Lazar and Joe Laporta once again demonstrate a well-balanced sound with good punch and reach in the bass that does not cater to the loudness war camp. Though a bit on the cool side at times, I did not perceive any listener fatigue. I would be curious as to what a vinyl version could sound like and am eager to discover his earlier material. Someday I might just let you in on both.