José González’s sound is a mix between Nick Drake and João Gilberto. It’s based partly on his heritage. He was born of Argentinean parents in Sweden, where he is currently loved and adored. That Gilberto comparison relates to González’s use of a classical guitar to create a bossa nova sound. The Nick Drake similarity is immediately obvious. I hate to admit that I was introduced to him through the Volkswagen ad like the rest of us 20-somethings not quite old or hip enough to find him on our own. But that’s the case. Taking a page from Drake’s Pink Moon, most of González’s album features only vocals and a finger-picked acoustic guitar. Apart from a brief snippet of trumpet on the closing track and González’s own stark percussion on a few more, that’s all there is. Also mimicking Pink Moon, Veneer is barely 30 minutes long and has only 11 tracks.
Pink Moon was and is effusively gushed over. People seem to forget that some of the songs sound half-finished and that even many of the completed ones aren’t spectacular. Yes, moments are glorious, but it’s far from perfect. Veneer borrows so heavily from that aesthetic that it even keeps the half-formed songs. “Remain” and “Lovestain” are two such tracks. They are both very good, but their lyrics are repeated mantras instead of narratives or sketches. “Heartbeats” and “Crosses” improve dramatically upon those repetitive tracks. In fact, they’re two of the most gorgeous songs I’ve heard all year. “Heartbeats” is comforting and cool. It evokes the best aspects of Peter Gabriel’s love songs, showcasing González’s double-tracked vocals and allowing the monitoring levels to distort them lightly during louder moments. “Crosses”, once featured on Fox’s The O.C., has the most adventurous melody on the album. Unlike the other songs, which are often hypnotic and pleasant, “Crosses” is actually kind of catchy. Also it’s one of the few songs you’d enjoy singing to yourself at odd moments of the day, seeing as how, “Don’t you know that I’ll be around to guide you through your weakest moments” is infinitely more comforting than a lyric from, say, “Save Your Day”: “Poke the body with a stick/ Roll it down/ Ignore the moaning as it tumbles to the ground.” Sheesh. What a downer.
Minimalist in music and vocals, the album is also minimalist when it comes to artwork. The front cover and back cover each show one hand-drawn image: a squarish/map-like ripped object on the front and some guy contemplating journeying on a humpbacked escalator on the back. What? Don’t strain too hard thinking about it, or you might just pop a blood vessel in your brain. Luckily understanding the artwork is not essential to understanding the music.
The lyrics, likewise, seem to have been given a supporting, minimalist role. Still, some moments could be better. “Remain” has only two lines: “We’ll remain after everything’s been washed away/ By the rain we will stand upright as we stand today.” That’s it. “Lovestain” features a similar lack of verbosity. In these two songs, the sections are simply repeated in a loop. The vocals become louder or softer as Gonzalez’s mood dictates. While these songs are intriguing in a certain respect, they cannot match up to the more developed tunes on the album, more complex in regards to lyrics and music. “Hints” proves that when there’s more than one line in a song, there’s more opportunity for an excellent couplet: “While the crowd is waiting for the final kiss/ The one which allows them to sleep well.”
The remaining songs don’t vary much from the preceding ones. The cohesive vision for the album makes it a mood record. It’s equally excellent for background music during a game of Scrabble or, for more amorous listeners, a make out session. Either way, it’s an album that longs to be heard, and after you hear it, you’ll be longing to listen to it over and over.
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