Aside from the villages of the Southern Gothenburg Archipelago in Sweden, where residents operate on a strict no-car policy (they have fishing cottages, bush-laden pathways and tram transportation – but no cars), José González’s Veneer might be another item that qualifies for a bullet point in the next edition of Fodor’s Travel Guide. A native of Sweden’s second largest city, José González managed to find enough solace and quaintness among Gothenburg and its nearly 800,000 inhabitants to record Veneer.
González obviously looks back at the folk songwriters of the 1960s and early 1970s on Veneer, and although there are elements that may have characterized the work of Cat Stevens and Nick Drake here, Veneer isn’t a direct descendent of Five Leaves Left. Each piece on González’s debut LP rolls somewhat abruptly into closing chords and lyrics, and even if his nearly whispered sentiments are jubilant, the race to keep these songs under three minutes still makes things sound somewhat sullen. Though his vocal delivery is just as somber as Drake’s or Leonard Cohen’s and his classically picked guitar phrases often balance rhythm and lead like those of his predecessors, González’s arrangements can gain a sort of raucous momentum that sets this performer apart from those presumably in his record collection.
“Remain” begins with a bare, rumbling guitar melody that’s accented by understated, mild percussion by way of hand drums. González offers defiant verse on “Remain,” and announces, instead of following his melody to the letter, that “We will stand upright as we stand today,” before the track escalates into the comparison-shattering pinnacle of loud, rattling strings, backed by his temperate backup harmonies. This is one of the few corners where González’s vocals push into compelling, though not-quite-riotous calls rather than reluctantly and strikingly sung lyrics.
Though every piece of Veneer is rich in its own bare beauty, the complete overturning that he handed “Heartbeats” from Sweden’s quirky, electronic pop outfit the Knife is one standout. Its soft, glowing aura of meshed rhythms and delicate guitar leads is a far cry from the original’s sugary, scorching synths and dance-floor-ready grooves. If it isn’t apparent in his own looking-glass songs, González’s direction with the warm melody of “Heartbeats” is evidence of a wealth of stifled romanticism that he’s now, thankfully, made public.