Review by Tim Sendra
Jose Gonzalez earned himself a lot of fans with his first album, Veneer. Songs from it were placed in TV shows and featured in ads, he appeared on Top of the Pops and played festivals, and became a sought-after guest vocalist for electronic artists (Zero 7, Savath & Savalas, Plan B). His intimate, tender sound featuring just his voice and a skillfully played acoustic guitar struck a chord all around the world. The long lag between the recording of Veneer (which was originally released in Sweden during 2003 and only widely available in 2005) and the release of the follow-up, 2007's In Our Nature, might lead fans to think that time might bring about a change in Gonzalez's sound. Those fears prove to be groundless. Despite teasing some changes with a fuller, more arranged sound featuring a backing band on the 2006 EP Stay in the Shade, In Our Nature is a near sonic clone of Veneer, right down to the cover of a classic electronica track (this time it's Massive Attack's "Teardrops"). This is great news for people looking for more of the same quiet, stark, but beautiful songs and performances, but if you were looking for some kind of change or progression, you're out of luck unless you listen quite intently and get past the smooth surface. What you'll find are more political lyrics (like on the opening "How Low," which shoots verbal daggers at war-mongering world leaders), more passionate vocals, some more forceful guitar playing, and a general sense of urgency and unease bubbling underneath the prettiness. It may take a few listens before the record reveals itself as a relative cauldron of restrained emotion, but it's worth the effort. Or you could choose to let the moody songs and melancholy atmosphere relax and sooth you. Either way the record is sure to please the fans who latched on to Veneer.
In Our Nature
They say the true measure of a great song is whether it still sounds as good when you strip the accompaniment down to a solo acoustic guitar. They, of course, are full of shit. This year alone, a bunch of my favorite songs-- Chromatics' "In the City", let alone Lil Mama's "Lip Gloss"-- have been more about texture and rhythm than melody. Jose Gonzalez might still be best known for his unplugged cover of the Knife's "Heartbeats", but with this Swedish singer-songwriter, lack of adornment means something different than just showing a song's bones.
In fact, for Gonzalez's follow-up to debut album Veneer, I hesitate to use the term "singer-songwriter" at all. It used to bother me that the Gothenburg-based artist hadn't written any originals as compelling as his covers, which so far have included not just "Heartbeats" but also Kylie Minogue's "Hand on Your Heart" and Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart". I'm so over it now. While sophomore full-length In Our Nature still only rarely nears the songwriting brilliance of Gonzalez's fantastic cover selections (an unfair standard!), that's clearly not the game he's playing best.
On In Our Nature, Gonzalez takes the basic elements of an acoustic troubadour's craft and explores their possibilities, not only as ingredients of songs, but as sounds to be enjoyed in their own right. A stray breath, the buzzing of guitar strings, a hand scraping across the frets: these are all shades in Gonzalez's palette. The biggest embellishment you're likely to hear is a metronomic foot-tap, subtle hand percussion, or a backing vocal by Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagamo. Where the Knife's "haunted house" sound is informed by minimal techno, Gonzalez's lo-fi acoustic guitar music could be dubbed "minimal folk."
Or "minimal folk-pop," if you prefer. Like British folkie John Martyn on 1973's Solid Air, Gonzalez has a reassuringly airy voice and the intricate finger-picking of a leftfield jazz aficionado. Plus, there are plenty of hooks in his spare melodies and still sparer lyrics. Whether a political statement, a musing on sin, or a stark depiction of a troubled relationship, first video selection "Down the Line" is entrancing beyond its slightly distorted strums, droning treble strings, or clicking percussion. "It's all about compromising," Gonzalez sighs into what he calls "the darkness."
The fire and brimstone from classic American folk (and its folk-rock inheritors) is often detectable behind Gonzalez textures. For all its sleepy off-mic mumbling and uncluttered finger-picking, "Abram" reads as a shot against religion: "Even though you mean well (well, most of the time)/ You made a delusion and created lies in our minds." And from the first breaths of bloodstained opener "How Low", In Our Nature is haunted by the ugliness of war. With one of the more memorable, faster-paced guitar figures on the album, second video selection "Killing for Love" could be an indictment of blood lust, if not the lust in our hearts.
The preaching occasionally turns slightly pat. The title track trudges a bit, and its repetitions ("It's in our nature," or, "Put down your gun") don't make the dark theme more arresting. Closer "Cycling Trivialities" shows Gonzalez at his most vulnerable, with a stream of plangent notes bubbling out from an unaccompanied guitar, and while the song's sense of futility-- capping off an album heavy with the stuff-- gets pretty powerful, an extended outro and the awkward title phrase itself find Gonzalez in a rare moment of unwarranted excess.
Nevertheless, even the least striking tracks have their electrifying moments: Take "Time to Send Someone Away", which sets weary defiance over handclaps, or "Fold", which casts up a gentle plea against the better of its own hard-earned wisdom. Opening with a yawn, "The Nest" adds the bagpipe-like keyboard playing of Hakan Wirenstrand before ending in the hiss of amplified dead air.
Like its predecessor, In Our Nature is a collection of sparse acoustic recordings. But it's a more thoughtful and atmospheric work than either Veneer or last year's Stay in the Shade EP-- one that suggests Gonzalez has enough talent to make good on the lofty Pink Moon comparisons. And for the first time, the cover-- an urgent acoustic rendition of Massive Attack's "Teardrop"-- isn't even the album's best track.
-Marc Hogan, September 28, 2007