Album Review, Jose Gonzalez Veneer

I am not going to beat around the bush on this one.  I am going to come right out and say it. If you are not listening to Jose Gonzalez—if you have never listened to Jose Gonzalez—then your life is the poorer for it.

If you have heard the neo-folk finger picking and understated crooning of Jose Gonzalez and dismissed it, you need to give this music a second chance.

I have always had an affinity for folk, or folkish music—I was raised on a steady diet of Peter, Paul and Mary, with some John Prine, the occasional Dylan tune, and a great deal of James Taylor. I was a sucker for Nick Drake the first time I heard him.  I like maudlin and quiet music; I like strings.

What I don’t like is how often folkish artists are ruined by producers—by other artists who want to ‘flesh out the sound”. My brother and I have debated about this many times. I despise the way some of Nick Drake’s tracks have been ruined by horns and over-instrumentation. One of my brother’s favorite recent aristists, Ray LaMontagne, sounds great when he plays alone with his guitar, but I cursed when I acquired his album: filled with bells, whistles, horns and the touch of too heavy a producer’s hand.

It is not that I am against noise. Artists like Trent Reznor and Beck make beautiful music from uncommon sounds. The problem, as I see it, is that folk singers like Drake and LaMontagne write their music alone with a guitar—the song is itself and complete without the noises that the recording process often introduces.

But I digress. I want to fill you with love, not disdain.

I first heard Nick Drake from a giant who was subletting the other room in my apartment in NYC. He gave me a stack of albums that were to be released in the coming year (he was interning at a record company). The albums included work by Why? (Elephant Eyelash) and M. Ward in addition to Jose Gonzalez’s Veneer.

As soon as I listened to this album, I knew it was something special. I loved it enough that I could do anything to it—except for reading, because the music kept pulling me in. I quickly bought every EP and collaboration credited to Gonzalez. His other work is good—his band Junip’s work is melodic and full. But nothing compares to the somber beauty of this album.

I tried my best to make my wife appreciate the music, but she quickly dismisses maudlin-sounding guitar music. And so she dismissed Gonzalez until we went to see him perform. We caught his performance during a sunny afternoon at a music festival, and, as I arranged it, we were right at the edge of the stage.  When Gonzalez came out and started playing, my wife was shocked. She could not believe the complexity and richness of the music coming from one man playing alone.

To this day, while she still wonders aloud how I can listen to such quiet music without wanting to die, she concedes that she would watch him play at any opportunity. And so should you. But first, listen.

The first great song on the album is “Lovestain”; the track begins with a driving finger-picking pattern that varies with slight flourishes and builds in sound through each rotation. When the vocalists comes in with the strange lyric “You left a lovestain on my heart” handclaps softly accompany him. At times, the vocalist doubles up with a harmony. But that’s about it. Guitar. Voice. A little percussion.

Gonzalez might not have the most interesting or dynamic voice (like Ray LaMontagne) or the same mastery of melodies as a Nick Drake, but he has a dreamy, sometimes even nightmarish, and unique sound. No one reminds me of him.

The double-tracking of the voice is used to beautiful effect on the fourth song of the album “Heartbeats”. Again, the song begins with a finger-picking pattern, this one heavier on the bass strings, rolling forward and pushing to the vocals that, with a slight reverberation effect,  hang strikingly over the composition:

One night to be confused

One night to speed up truth

We had a promise made

Four hands and then away


The chorus is a bit louder, the harmonies a bit broader (and closer to a major scale), but with completely enigmatic lyrics: “To call for hands of above / To lean on / Wouldn’t be good enough / For me, no”. Admittedly, when written out, the lyrics seem nonsensical or foolish. But the way Gonzalez stretches the vowels and utters the syllables with his true tone makes them sound profound.

The bass line fades away for the bridge and just once, Gonzalez lets his fingers splash through the treble strings before going back. Gonzalez makes giant steps with the smallest movements of his hands.

And this is one of the themes of the album. The album starts with a slightly syncopated finger picking rhythm in a minor key—only the guitar is there until Gonzalez sings hauntingly “the compromise between honesty and lies”. He lengthens the vowels of “cOmpromise” and between” so that each word functions almost as a full line. For the chorus, he adds in a harmonizing vocal, a light and higher keen above his baritone voice.

If you listen with good headphones or in a quiet room, you can hear the squeak of his fingers  on his left hand as they move across the strings on the fretboard and the slight percussion of his right hand plucking.

The second track “Remain” accelerates the pace, more of a doubled strum sound than the finger-picking of the first track; this time the sound is rounded out with percussion. The fifth song, “Crosses”, also quite well-known, probably creates the best crescendo on the album and presents the strongest turns in Gonzalez’s voice.

He follows up the nearly raucous sounds (as loud as I can imagine a human being plucking strings without them breaking) with the longer and more quiet beginning of “Deadweight on velveteen” which takes 30 seconds to build as the fingers spend more time pulling a short melody out of the treble strings. When the vocalist returns with lines like “vulgar when brought to life”, however, we know we are not in a world of sweetness and light”.

Some sweetness seeps through on the eighth track, “Stay in the Shade”, where the somber lyric “Stay in the shade / until you reach the grade” is accompanied by a finger picking pattern that provides a real bass line but dwells mainly in the middle strings with flourishes in the higher register between phrases. Here, too, we hear a light percussive beat, probably on a hand-drum, but believably tapped out on the surface of a guitar.

In my opinion, if this album has a soul, it is split between the leaps of “Heartbeats” and the churning, hammer-down riff of “Hints” where the sparer picking pattern alternates with a second guitar line that channels some rougher emotion. Again the percussion, a beat every measure or so, could be a hand slapping the guitar. Here Gonzalez drops the doubled vocal track as he repeats the few words of the entire song:

While the crowd is waiting for the final kiss

The one which allows them to sleep well

We’ll walk along our own path

The one which will lead us to our own bliss

But we need hints before we get tired

We need speed before we lose pace

We need a hint to know we’re on the right track

Simple, but elegant words defying easy interpretation. The vocal hangs above the rolling guitar. Is this a metaphor for death? Perhaps. The ambiguity lets us read ourselves into the song and to forget that someone else sings these words.

In part, I think that this is what draws me to folk music—the simplicity of the performance, belied by the complexity of the lyrics, is often so much more intimate than other forms of music; folk music makes connections with its audience that other music may (or can) not. Or at least it does for me.

And let’s be honest, I also have a weakness for music steeped in sorrow. But the thing is, I don’t really think Gonzalez’s music is that sad—it just sounds that way. If that makes any sense. This is music for quiet contemplation, for reflection, for regret and the promise of a better day. If I am inspired by the contemplation of loss, does that make me in some way perverse?

In any case, Veneer, an album whose title points both to the superficiality of music and the promise that something deeper lies within, is one of my favorite albums ever. Another lock for the Desert Island List.

And what do you think, my brother?

The Death of a Cat

Not too long ago I had to have my cat put to sleep—she had a thyroid problem and her body was shutting down. The end rapidly approached as she retained more and more fluid and it became harder for her to breathe. I held her as the doctor administered the medicine; it seemed quick and painless. For the following few days, I lived one of those interminable moments waiting for feeling either to come back or to stop completely.

This may seem more than a bit dramatic, but I have a complicated history with cats. The Family J didn’t always have cats—our mother was allergic and both parents were dedicated dog people. When I was in fifth grade, however, a young kitten showed up on our doorstep. That cute, furry thing was the beginning of trouble. We all fell in love with her. We fed her milk, lavished attention upon her, and begged to bring her inside. When she was still at our house after two days, our mother gave in.

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YouTube Covers I

Now, I have written before about the art of the cover song (and my own theories). So this is not an entry about that. Instead, I am interested in the way that technology and the modern media has changed the relationship between the learning musician and the covered song.

For instance, reality competition shows (American Idol; The Voice) have incentivized (even monetized) cover songs in a way that just didn’t exist when I was younger (apart from the karaoke stylings of Star Search). Everyone who can carry a tune has an audition song. Audiences have become accustomed to discussions of fidelity vs. originality in performances for years.

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On the Radio: Ni**as in Paris

As I have mentioned before, my wife brainwashed both of our children in utero with mainstream hip-hop and top 40’s formats. From the posts on this blog it would seem that I don’t care at all about hip-hop, which is not actually the case. The problem is more that the necessary ingredients to love hip-hop as an adolescent were absent from my youth (listening to R&B, funk; the right atmosphere and geography) and my gene pool (my parents were the whitest people on the planet and grew up in some of the whitest places on the planet; they never listened to jazz, blues or anything edgier than the Rolling Stones).

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Songs of the Year—1995

Must’ve been mid-afternoon
I could tell by how far the child’s shadow stretched out and
he walked with a purpose
in his sneakers, down the street
he had, many questions
like children often do

Songs of the Year: “Hell”, Squirrel Nut Zippers; “Counting Blue Cars”, Dishwalla

Runners-up: “Friends of P”, The Rentals; “Lump”, Presidents of the United States of America

Honorable Mentions: “Good”, Better than Ezra; “You Oughta Know” Alanis Morrissette

Not every year is dominated by songs that came out in that year; in the same way, the memory of a year will rarely be dictated by the songs you would like to have listened to or even the albums you actually bought. 1995 was still the year of Alanis (before she felt the need to thank India); none of us cared that she didn’t seem to understand irony or why one hand was in her pocket.

(Best suggestions from my friends at the time: (1) she’s hiding a roach; (2) sex toy in her hand; (3) she has an old woman’s hand and if it sees the light of day she’ll suddenly become an octogenarian; (4) she doesn’t have a hand!)

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Pop Imperfection: Every Rose has its Thorn?

“Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew” – Jack Gilbert

In the three minutes or so of the average pop song, there is ample opportunity for mistakes. Large mistakes in lyrics or instrumentation make some songs seem like bad ideas from the start. Single strange points can be repeated ad nauseam to undermine otherwise effective pieces.

At times, choices that seem terrible and jarring can be repeated enough to wear the listener down, to bully into submission. (Rihanna’s repeated “ella” in “Umbrella” was initially so offensive to me that I tried to turn the radio off every time it came on. My wife made me leave the song on. I can now listen and appreciate the song—even if I still don’t like it.)

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Prime Cuts of Primus

Prime Cuts of Primus

I don t believe in Pinochle

And I don’t believe I’ll try

I do believe in Captain Crunch

For I am the Frizzle Fry”

Primus has been one of my favorite bands since I was a kid and I try to expose everyone I know to their music. The majority of people cannot handle it for more than a couple songs saying it’s too intense or busy or even just lying to me and saying they just want to hear something else.  I feel bad for these people as I think everyone could like them if they put in the time. Or not. Ultimately, I don’t care who likes them as they are one of the most unique bands to exist and we are all lucky to have them here on Earth. Their funky style of heavy rock draws from countless sources and sounds like nothing else out there. Their fans are diehard and some of them are scarily dedicated to a truly cult band. People love them or hate them. Primus sucks and this is why.

As a side note, many people yell “Primus Sucks” at shows because they very much do not suck. This is what I assume anyway but I read on the Primus blog recently that Les wants this to end so we will see how far that goes. It’s the thing to do, like yelling “Hot Fuckin Tuna” or “Freebird”. If this entry elicits any interest in the band, please take  some time getting to know the band as I am sure you will at least come to admire them. Also, I intend to give a synopsis of the band in four lines or less to fill in your own gaps. Primus has been around over twenty years and is headed by the mammoth bass player Les Claypool and  Larry Lalonde as the guitarist from the beginning. The drummers have changed continually with Jay Lane now in the line up. Their music is hard to identify genre wise but it’s all based around Claypool’s unreal bass playing and eclectic lyrics. Ok I lied, it was five lines.

My first memory of Primus is vague. My sister’s friend Carl, who actually was my brother’s friend first and who apparently wanted my sister but was significantly and creepily older than her, brought over a Primus VHS that started with “John the Fisherman”.  I think it wad that song anyway and there was a boat. I must have been 7 or so as I look at the dates and I remember instantly loving the bass heavy music. It was unlike anything I had ever heard and I remember bobbing my head along with the music. It didn’t have the typical guitar lines with a bass line that followed with root notes and the occasional flourish. The bass was out front and the drums were going apeshit while the guitar made various cool noises. I didn’t know any of this jargon at the time but as I look back, these are the things that draw me to the band. It must have been a collection of videos taped off TV because I just watched the video for the above mentioned song and that’s definitely what I saw. It’s still cool almost twenty years later and I see why I still love the band from that first vague glimmer.

I vividly remember hearing “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” on my sister’s boom box from the new “alternative” radio station from the city not too far from our rural home. This station was sick at the beginning: they didn’t play any commercials and it was music you would no hear anywhere else at the time. This is way before iTunes and YouTube and I didn’t get to hear this song again until my sister bought the album, the one and only Primus album any of my siblings ever owned. Maybe that’s another reason I liked them so much, albeit subconsciously. I always took my brother’s cds and this was one I took from my sister when she realized she hated every other song on the disc. Her loss and my gain as this the song is one of all choice cuts. The high pitched noise reminds me now of pigs squealing and the guitar solos are clearly Jerryesque. Nothing I love more than some farm animals and Dead homage’s. That sounds a lot weird written out then it did in my head. As a final note, I am still not sure if this song is a euphemism for female genitalia or an actual reference to a beaver.

I didn’t get to really like Primus, like super fan style, until towards the end of high school. A good friend at that time, who later ended up spending some time in a federal penitentiary, had been going to Ozzfest since it’s inception. I went to ’03 with him and and still have the scars on my knees to prove it.  He had caught Primus in 1999 and been a diehard fan ever since . he would always play the Brown Album over and over in his piece of shit Oldsmobile that he always drove at the top speed it could handle without rattling apart.  Specifically, he dug on “Shake Hands with Beef” and would always yell the lyrics along with Les and pound his fist on the crumbling dashboard.The whole album is good, albeit different than other Primus albums in content and sound.  But every Primus album is different and that’s another reason I really like them. My friend is still in trouble with the law and I rarely see him but I hope he still likes Primus.

College was really when I became the super fan. Even more so than high school, I think college is really where you become who you are and discover your true tastes. I also met Adam sophomore year and he was a huge Primus fan. The fall we became friends, we drank a lot of beer and talked a lot about music. One weekend, we ended up going back to his apartment after a party and alienating all the people who we were with by putting on a DVD of the 2003 Tour De Fromage.  . Primus’s music can be very abrasive and dissonant, coupled with some downright scary lyrics like the tale of killing a man with an aluminum baseball bat for having bad breath in “My Name is Mud”.  It just isn’t for some people and I think this is one of the many reasons I like the band. It would become a regular thing throughout college to listen to Primus after drinking all night and once I found my girlfriend that I with for 75% of college, she also became a Primus fan. This only fueled my growing fandom of the band.  Adam has turned out to be one of my best friends and rarely does us hanging out not result in some Primus being played or at least discussed. More on him next paragraph.

So I didn’t get to see Primus until 2010 but I got to see them twice, once in Vermont and again in Boston. They are now in a permanent position in my top five favorite bands. I’ve seen Les Claypool five times and he has some various extremely talented musicians back him up on his solo material on instruments ranging from the cello to the vibraphones. Perhaps I’ll write about Les solo in the future, but now I want to focus on Primus. All the Les shows were precursors to the truly soul shaking experience of seeing Primus. Both shows were seen with Adam and we were like two little boys jumping up and down for two hours, completely ignoring the multiple friends who joined us in Vermont and full on converting the one friend in Boston. Les commands your attention without being obnoxious, literally making your chest and head pound with his funky and thunderous bass lines. Larry’s guitar playing, coupled with Jay’s frenetic drum beats, leaves a deep grove that you can’t kick post show. Some day I will write about my top five favorite live shows and I can assure you Primus will be near the top. Word is a new album is coming out and they are touring everywhere except the Northeast this summer, a total bummer, But I’ll see them again, that is for sure.

I like Primus for a variety of reason. First, not a single other band sounds like them. That means more than anything to me in this world of listening to top 40 hits and not knowing when the songs start or end. I look for truly unique music and love when I can find it. Their funky and heavy mix of sound appeals to me because it has a way of getting into you and making you move. I was literally jumping around my office area two minutes ago while listening to a live cut of “Tommy the Cat”. Second, not a lot of people like them. Is this one of those I like them because I want to separate myself from the popular pack? No, it’s because it takes time and can be difficult to listen to this band and other true fans have put in the same amount of time as I have. Whenever you meet a fan, it’s like you’re instantly friends and I find that to be a great honest feeling. Third, I love the bass and have been playing one for the past year pretty much so I can try and be like Les, some day anyway. I can play two Les riffs and counting. Fourth, I find Les ’s lyrics to be very funny and at times, very identifiable to me and my own life. I mean the fishing, redneck, and car references. I also mean the song about the Department of Motor Vehicles and the endless other idiosyncratic lyrics. A lot of people refer to them as nonsensical but I doubt they know enough to really make a viable comment on the matter. Lastly, their live show is amazing, absolutely riveting and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I probably seem like a semi obsessed freak at this point but I don’t care. Everyone has a band like this, just look at my brother and They Might Be Giants,a similar band and motive in why he likes them so much. I end this post with one of their trippier cuts that kills it live and the message that if you like a weird band, embrace them and spread the word.

On the Radio: Pumped Up Kicks

Recently when my brother finally came to visit my hot as hell state, we painted my deck and did some driving around town talking and listening to the radio. (The visit was too short. I wish we didn’t live so far apart.) More than once while driving, we heard Foster the People’s “Pumped-up Kicks”.

As I often wonder about songs that get under my skin, what makes them work? This song’s attractiveness starts with its muffled bass line—it walks smoothly around, it makes you move with it. The overall sonic atmosphere of the song is well balanced. When the vocal comes in through the old-school radio effects, I almost reject it for trying too hard to be cool.

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The Foo Fighters….how they went from my first favorite band to my least favorite band

I wrote a while back about how my first cd which was the first Foo Fighters  album, the self titled one with the weird ray gun on the cover. I remember going into Best Buy and buying the cd with my own money so it probably was  not my first cd…..just the one I first actively purchased. I supposed all my cds before were presents or lifted from my brother. And, contrary to my earlier stated distaste for Whitney Houston, I did have the soundtrack to The Bodyguard in my room for one summer and for some reason listening to it to fall asleep. But, I digress…and the concept of my finding Whitney soothing is positively bone chilling. I loved this cd and it hurts me to say so, but I now hate this band and not because they suck. They don’t suck per se, although I do think many of their songs sound the same. I hate them because they are relentlessly and unmercifully played on alternative  rock stations across the country.

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