Ulises Hadjis Strips Down And Goes For Something Bigger With Pavimento

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It takes less than a minute into “Movimiento,” the opening track on Ulises Hadjis new album, Pavimento, to know what you’re in for. While Ulises is not exactly a household name, least of all a pop figure, he’s not new to the scene entirely. You might have certain expectations if you’ve enjoyed Hadjis’ music in the past, but there’s something new here that even a guest appearance from Gepe can’t prepare you for.

There’s no two ways about it: This is Ulises’ big pop record. Pavimento follows a sound and a mood that have been practiced by big-name Latin American pop stars who care more about romanticism than dancing the soles of their shoes off. You’ve heard this sort of music on the radio before, in many forms with many different voices. The tones are warm, the production lush, and Ulises’ voice intimate, well manicured, and emotional.

But this hasn’t always been the case for Ulises. The Venezuelan singer began with a folky sound that didn’t quite stay put or even want to. His second album, Cosas Perdidas, earned him three Latin Grammy nominations, including Best Rock Song, Best Alternative Music Album, and Best New Artist. It’s one of those records that’s melodic, lovelorn, beautifully crafted, and sonically challenging. For his follow up, Hadjis doesn’t want to play it safe; this time, he’s going for the gold.

Pavimento features a low key candor and ambition, a soft light environment that make all the instruments sound right no matter where you choose to listen to it. There’s a feeling the songs are presented with gentle smiles to strangers, hoping to make everyone feel good. The aforementioned “Movimiento” could easily be a smash hit for Juanes at his most earnest. The album is produced by Andrés Levin, who has helmed records by Miguel Bosé and John Legend as well as Ely Guerra and David Byrne, and that should be telling of what’s going on here. At times it reminds me of Carlos Vives at his most commercial, in the sense that the base sound he works with is ever present but there’s an irresistible quality to what he does for mainstream audiences; “Consecuencias y Reclamos” (with Esteman and Juan Pablo Vega) being the prime example for me, since it also features some socially conscious lyrics.

The general pace of the album is that of a romantic ballad but there are moments when the spell is broken and that’s when highlights happen. There’s “Al Final Del Tiempo” with its big singalong finale that begs to be played at the end of each one of Hadjis’ shows. “Amuleto” stands out because of its ambitious shift at the end of the song, where it becomes more rhythmic. “Basura” is one of the shinier tracks of Pavimento, which has some nice Torreblanca-like cabaret-funk to it. The record closes with a song called “Ulises Hadjis,” a little ditty where the singer recounts some situations and the way which makes him act, painting him as a sort of awkward person with a cute backdrop thanks to the music.

Pavimento should propel Ulises to mainstream recognition. It’s rounded and well written but lacks a little bit of charisma in some tracks. On Cosas Perdidas and the album before that, Presente, Ulises’ songwriting had an otherworldly quality absent here; as a songwriter, he was cool and savvy enough to dress his songs up in odd-in-an-exciting-way that remained starry eyed and catchy. Granted, that’s not for everyone’s tastes, and Hadjis might have grown tired from this more-is-more approach and decided he would rather focus on the meat of the songs. In this sense, it’s a more stripped down record, but the architecture is by no means less ambitious than what he’s done. It’s more conventional, but that can be an exciting challenge for someone who has been used to his own devices.

Making a more palatable album isn’t bad, and there’s plenty of winners here. Ulises Hadjis can take care of his own person in the world of big commercial TV and radio, and come out a smiling, true to himself victor.

The tour in support of “Pavimento” starts with shows in MiamiMedellinNew York and Mexico City.