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José González: Veneer

Album: Veneer
Label: Hidden Agenda

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There isn't much left to be done with the "guy with guitar" format, except by performers who have good stories to tell or enchanting moods to spin. Swedish folksinger José González is one of the latter. He's a classically trained guitarist whose Argentinean parents reared him on The Beatles and João Gilberto, and on his debut album, Veneer, González weaves those influences into an elegant, haunting collection of songs in the vein of Nick Drake's Pink Moon, or Elliott Smith's early work. It's an intimate expression of all that's beautiful and terrifying in the world, recorded by one man in the dark of night in a quiet room. Veneer demands to be listened to alone, and under headphones if possible.

The music is relatively uncomplicated, given González's training, but it has some stylistic range. The album-opening "Slow Moves" contains echoes of Brasilia, while "Remain" sounds like the quiet interlude in the middle of a Pink Floyd epic, "Deadweight On Velveteen" sounds like a New Age composition with the dippy spirituality sucked out, and "Heartbeats" sounds like a hard-rock power ballad turned down from 10 to 1. González's intricate finger-picking and murmured vocals provide enough reason to tune him in, but the sound's power comes from the way he combines those elements into something strikingly natural. All that's keeping Veneer from instant-classic status is the way the sound's power dissipates toward the end of the album's 30-minute running time, though González first delivers at least one timeless song. "Crosses" is two and a half minutes of crystalline acoustic guitar, evocative imagery, and overpowering want. Listening to it is like seeing the sun set over the ocean the day before vacation ends.