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?

Advertisements

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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).

Continue reading

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
–Dishwalla

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!)

Continue reading

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.)

Continue reading