More than bliss: Federico Aubele

Boston Globe, August 29, 2008

Loungey, downtempo electronic music is everywhere these days; it’s the international late-night sound of our time, at once product of a hyperkinetic global culture and antidote to its agitation. The swirling soundscapes, the layers of polyglot melodies riding supple rhythms, convey a kind of new cosmopolitan sensibility and feed the need for peace amid tumult that has turned “chillout” into a whole musical genre.

Yet recognizable as the style might be, it hasn’t been easy for individual artists to make their mark in a milieu where DJ culture favors individual tracks over complete albums and the music’s inherent ease of listening can turn it all too quickly into sonic wallpaper.

So when a singer and instrumentalist like Argentina’s Federico Aubele emerges with a distinctive creative voice and a track record of critically lauded albums – so much as to support his own band and tour globally, with a stop at the Paradise on Thursday – it means he’s doing much more than messing around on a laptop in search of a blissed-out vibe.

Aubele came to prominence in 2004 with an album, “Gran Hotel Buenos Aires,” that tapped into, but also reached beyond, the electronically infused tango revival going on at the time. On his 2007 follow-up, “Panamericana,” he traveled still farther, using the conceit of the Alaska-to-Patagonia Pan American Highway to draw on a whole hemisphere of genres – cumbia, bolero, hip-hop, dub. Guests included the omnivorous Spanish singer Amparo Sanchez and the Tucson frontier band Calexico.

Reached by phone in Barcelona – one of his quasi-home bases in recent years, along with Berlin and his native Buenos Aires – the peripatetic Aubele says he doesn’t see himself as an electronic artist. He thinks of himself as a singer and songwriter who writes compositions that he’s equally comfortable rendering on highly produced, effects-laden records or strumming solo on an acoustic Spanish guitar.

“At some point I realized that I didn’t want to sound exactly like on my albums,” he says. “So I stripped down to just me on acoustic guitar with Natalia on vocals.” (He’s referring to Natalia Clavier, his vocalist and sidekick on both records, whom he recently married.) “And then we started to build back up from scratch.”

After performing for a while in this simplest of formations, Aubele grew comfortable with adding instruments back in – and eventually with restoring the delay effects on his guitar, which he had foregone as part of paring down. He’s now touring with a five-piece band. The whole process, he says, has been revealing.

“It was a very good experience to try to rearrange the songs and see how they sounded in a simple environment,” he says. “It gave me a lot of confidence. A good song should be independent from arrangements. If it’s balanced, well-written, properly composed, you should be able to arrange it with strings – or play it with a rock band.”

At the same time, though, Aubele has continually sharpened his chops on the electronic side of his craft. His albums appear on the label Eighteenth Street Lounge, the recording arm of the pioneering production and DJ outfit Thievery Corp., which has arguably done more than any to crystallize the new global lounge sound from its unlikely base of Washington, D.C.

Aubele credits the team, with whom he hooked up years ago after sending them a demo from Buenos Aires, with helping him grow as a producer. “I learned to select my material a lot better and be more selective with my arrangements. And then when it comes to the beats, since they’re DJs, they have a really good ear.”

Most of all, he says, the Thievery guys encouraged him to go with his instinct and work in Spanish at a time when he worried he should write songs in English as well. They reassured him that there was a market and international taste for progressive music with a Latin sensibility. “They encouraged me to make the Latin aspect more obvious.”

Obvious – but not cliched. Aubele isn’t worried in the least about getting pigeonholed as some kind of pan-Latin novelty. His music, with its complex allusions that reach into such non-Latin forms as hip-hop and reggae, is a far richer tapestry and far more thoughtfully made.

“I balance a lot of elements that are not routine or orthodox,” he says. “The Latin element is there in the Spanish lyrics and guitar, but on the other hand I use a lot of elements that have nothing to do with Latin culture. The combination, looking for the right balance, that’s what creates the atmosphere.”