Smart Pop

Back in the days of Cole Porter, pop songs had lyrics. You know, words put together in such a way as to say something you might be interested in hearing. And because there were lyrics, good singers had a way of delivering a song that went along with the words: restrained at some moments, snappy at others, and only rarely, when the words really called for it, full-throttle.

Of course that was before recording technology made the production of a song more important than the vocalist's delivery (hello, J.Lo). And long before American Idol turned singing into an Olympic sport, where the level of difficulty in hitting a high note counts more than whatever message the note conveys. No wonder everyone was so relieved to hear Norah Jones crying in the sand or Bacilos quietly going on about the face of the moon.

Now there's Obie Bermudez, a skinny Puerto Rican kid raised in New Jersey who could give Ruben Studdard a run for his money -- except that Bermudez has not only a great set of pipes, but a sense of timing, too. He only lets loose when it makes sense.

"One thing we decided on this album was that we didn't want a bunch of vocal gymnastics," says Sebastian Krys, producer of Bermudez's sophomore disc, Confesiones. He's sitting in a black leather chair at Crescent Moon Studios in Westchester next to a recording console that looks like it could launch a rocket, but he says they decided to keep the production simple too: No quick vocal fix from ProTools (Bermudez doesn't need it); no synthetic beats. "Obie's a real storyteller," Krys explains. "We wanted the stories to come through."

You might remember Bermudez as a salsa singer with BMG back in '98, but then again you might not -- not a lot of people heard that record. The kid got dropped, so his father-in-law got him an early a.m. job overseeing a laundromat in the Bronx. For three years he's been writing songs among the suds, watching as customers try to wash away their sins along with the stains on their clothes. In his transformation from salsero to singer-songwriter, Bermudez ditches the clave but revives the storytelling tradition of classic salsa that seemingly disappeared when the major labels decided to market salsa songs as tales about love or love-gone-wrong.

"I never gave up hope," says Bermudez, leaning on his knees in another leather chair. "I knew it would happen."

Remote control in hand, Krys clicks us through Confesiones's ten tracks, pausing so Bermudez can give a little introduction before each one. "This guy used to come in after sleeping with some other woman, then try to wash the lipstick off to fool his wife," Bermudez explains as he sets up the altrock title track. "This other guy would get so drunk, he'd come in the morning with his clothes covered with vomit and dirt from passing out in the street."

Not that every song is on spin cycle. He also finds fascinating situations in his own family. The gorgeous, salsa-tinged prison ballad "Fourth of July," co-written with the writer's lifetime idol Ruben Blades, is dedicated to Bermudez's brother, who is currently doing time in Jersey. "Paco" relates his father-in-law's crazy scheme for running a neighborhood church and making Bermudez a deacon.

It's not all about Nueva York, either. Bermudez collaborates with Bacilos frontman Jorge Villamizar on the quirky "Así Me Siento Hoy" ("That's How I Feel Today") and even adopts something akin to Villamizar's idiosyncratic vocal style on that tune. He pens "Me Cansé de Ti" ("I'm Tired of You") with Peruvian angst-meister Gian Marco and, taking a completely different tack, manages to make his own voice shiver.

To my ears the best track is the delightful (yes, delightful) apocalyptic fantasy, "El Fin" ("The End"), where Bermudez promises his wife they'll be making love when the world ends. He says he got the idea for the song while parasailing with his wife in Mexico and trying very hard not to show her he was scared to death. The theme is so out of the ordinary, he almost didn't share it with Krys.

"People always show you what they think you're going to like first," Krys explains. "Later on, they warm up and show you the really good stuff." Recording for the album was almost done when the songwriter got up the nerve to let his producer in on the perverse fantasy.

"'Okay, let's stop what we're doing,'" Krys remembers saying, and the pair got to work on the new track. As though trying to see how far they could tax their ingenuity, Krys, Bermudez, and arranger Joel Someillan coaxed their backing musicians into making an apocalyptic soundtrack with their instruments. Drums explode; guitars wail like sirens. The only sample thrown in is of an old record crackling after the music ends. Maybe that's the sound of old-time sophisticated pop breaking through.

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Celeste Fraser Delgado