, April 25th, 2013 11:41
What one regards as squanderous, another deems as progressive. On his own, Swedish-Argentine singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez is a fleet-fingered, ruby-throated troubadour — adept at bucolic balladry, possessor of a voice of quiet resignation to life's inevitabilities, string-picking successor to Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, Samuel Beam. However, with three-piece outfit Junip, Gonzalez's guitar lines merely plug tiny, leaky holes in an enormous wall of electronic sound. He submits to a particular synthetic approach; capos are swapped for patch cables.
So is this natural talent being squandered? Listening to Junip's self-titled second album — so indebted to synthpop and trip hop; so devoid of the acoustic melodies spun on Gonzalez's solo LPs, Veneer and In Our Nature, cottony melodies you wished to wrap yourself in before drifting off into blissful repose — I conjured up silly parallels to the creative path the singer-songwriter was taking. Fergie hanging up the overcoat to dedicate himself to Football Manager 2013? Michelangelo ditching frescoes for sidewalk art? Bert Jansch putting the guitar in mothballs to join Neu! for a forthcoming Brian Eno-produced LP?
Or is Junip an example of artistic progress? You know, Gonzalez acknowledging that taking a new path is arduous, but not nearly as arduous as eternally occupying the same familiar spaces. Gonzalez ignoring the boundaries of his capacity for personal transformation. Gonzalez wanting to sound like something between a "German jazz band and an African pop band" (his words) because sounding like something between a German jazz band and an African pop band is just simply fucking delightful.
The correct reply is that Junip is both loose and progressive, an album on which Gonzalez and crew are tightly pulled in opposite directions. One can hear the strain in 'Line of Fire', a track that feels both intimate and cinematic, sub-atomic and grandiose. Tobias Winterkorn's plush, droning organs engulf Gonzalez' spidery guitar playing; percussionist Elias Araya holds it all together with a heartbeat rhythm. Tension builds; then a release during the song's third act, Gonzalez singing "Step back from the line of fire!" with such conviction and zeal it's like he's reliving a moment of past tragedy and attempting to warn the unknowing victim before their life is unalterably changed forever. 'So Clear' is lighter in mood, but no less emotionally charged. The harmony between Winterkorn's elasticy synthesizers and Araya's bass-heavy rhythms is hypnotizing; Gonzalez's slight rasp details a much sought-after moment of hardened clarity: "And I feel so clear."
But Junip truly shines when the trio's energy is less concentrated, when the triumphs are more fleeting, when the payoffs are more subtle. If 'Line of Fire' is like the haggard gasps for air you take following an extended period of holding your breath, then tracks such as 'Beginnings' and 'After All Is Said And Done' are prolonged, relieved, deep-from-the-gut sighs. 'Beginnings' is all lush despair, Gonzalez's delicate misery ("Set to live without answers/to the questions running 'round your mind") accented by Winterkorn's gorgeously funereal organs. 'After All Is Said And Done' has an equally glacial tempo, which only heightens its themes of helplessness and regret.
It's the closest Gonzalez comes to adopting the aesthetic of his solo work: producing songs that are taut, dramatic, and intensely intimate, songs that take time to unload their tight emotional packaging, songs that draw you in for an embrace. Gonzalez's intricate, mellifluous guitar playing is not front and center, but committed followers of this side of his artistry will certainly be satisfied.