Jose Gonzalez

Mute, 2006

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


It takes guts to make a genuine solo acoustic troubadour singer-songwriter album. Maybe that seems counter-intuitive—after all, it gives the artist complete control over their creation, and simplifies the production process a lot—but the reality is that when it’s down to just you, an acoustic guitar, and a microphone, there’s nowhere to hide. You absolutely have to write well, play well, and sing well; if any one of these elements falls short, the whole thing collapses under its own weight.

Veneer does not collapse under its own weight; it stands tall and proud even with all of the elements that make it distinct and different.

José González is the son of Argentine parents who emigrated to Sweden two years before he was born in 1978 to escape the repressive regime that had taken over their homeland. As a teenager and college student he played bass and guitar in local punk and indie-rock bands. It was while enrolled in a Ph.D. program that he began crafting the songs on this, his solo debut, a literal bedroom album recorded at home with just an acoustic guitar and his voice. After self-releasing a single, he was signed by Imperial Records, becoming their first official recording artist. The album ended up charting across much of Europe in 2003-04, and was released in America two years later, further fueled by song placements on television dramas The O.C. and Friday Night Lights.

It’s not hard to understand why these songs caught the ears of television producers; its very spareness and intensity gives my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Veneer a strikingly cinematic feel. One of the reasons the music here is so evocative is that Gonzalez chooses to emphasize his intricate, forceful guitar work over his voice. His playing shows a strong classical influence while nimbly shifting between strummed rhythm guitar and plucked leads; meanwhile, on the vocal side he rarely enunciates, so that his singing often comes across more as pure vocal sound than as narrative.

The other primary characteristic of Veneer is that it’s intimate. Across 11 songs and just 31 minutes—most of these tightly-constructed tunes fail to break the three-minute mark—it feels like you’re sitting in a room that’s just big enough to have a pleasant, shimmery echo to it, with the performer and no one else. That sense of immediacy, coupled with the rhythmic intensity of Gonzalez’s playing, is distinctive and at times nearly hypnotic.

It’s a challenge to pick out highlights on an album this sonically consistent and lyrically abstract, but here are a few. “Remain” features a steady refrain and more typical pop structure and dynamics, including a solo / bridge section where his playing gets even more intricate and intense. The resonant “Deadweight On Velveteen” starts out spare and calm, easing in for a full minute before Gonzalez’s vocals begin, but then moves into his more typical thrumming, churning approach. And “Hints” offers especially evocative acoustic riffing, punctuated with hand slaps on the guitar body for percussion.

Overall, there’s a spectral quality to these songs. The sense that conjuring an atmosphere was his goal, rather than telling stories, is further accentuated by the album’s minimalist packaging. The “lyric sheet” consists of a pair of densely-packed, small-fonted paragraphs, two undifferentiated blizzards of words placed down low on the inside front and inside back covers of the booklet, presented as if they were an afterthought. In the end, in contradiction to the bold precision of Gonzalez’s playing, his songs emerge as impressionistic miniatures, conveying only hints of meaning amidst their splashes of instrumental color, simultaneously in focus and out of it.

It’s easy to appreciate why Gonzalez has earned a loyal following and numerous song placements; there is a visceral charisma to his presentation and he’s a hell of a guitar player. At the same time, it seems clear that he’s one of those artists I’m going to end up respecting more than enjoying; there’s just not enough meat on the narrative bones of these songs for a listener like me, who’s at least as interested in storytelling as atmospherics. Regardless of your own preferences, Jose Gonzalez’s Veneer is well worth checking out; it’s an undeniably compelling listen.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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