José González - Vestiges & Claws

by Justin Pearson Rating:7.5 Release Date:2015-02-16

A musician's wardrobe isn't complete without the basic singer/songwriter outfit - it's classic and never goes out of style. But when you reach for it, just make sure it fits. If not, you might want to consult Sweden's Jose Gonzalez for a little tailoring advice as he seems to be one of the leading experts of this musical fashion. And of late, he's looking pretty sharp.

On Vestiges & Claws there's a comfortable snugness and ease that feels freeing - a kind of openness that only the best folksters know how to pull off. Gonzalez blends social and personal concerns with pensive passion, highlighting our place in the world, resulting in an album in the vein of true 'folk' music for his latest release. The stripped-back intimacy of Nick Drake is employed throughout (listen to closing track 'Open Book' and you'll see what I mean).

Gonzalez is no imitator - far from it. Yet, since he's known for his cover of The Knife's 'Heartbeats' on 2003's Veneer, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. For this latest collection we get originals, each one poetically performed by this troubadour we've come to love (bed-headed curls and all, as a recent photo shows him to be).

His endearing, slightly devil-may-care appearance compliments the looseness of Vestiges & Claws, and you can almost see him leaning into the mic with his guitar on these songs. Acoustic picking, hand claps and percussion abound on 'Let It Carry You' and 'Leaf Off/The Cave', giving both songs a freestyle lightness that points to the spirit of improvisation and invite the listener in. 'Leaf Off...' moves and grooves with a call to a campfire sing-along with life-affirming lyrics: "Make the life lead you out/ Let reason guide you." Enlightenment never sounded so good.

The gentle, gorgeously plucked 'With the Ink of a Ghost' ebbs and flows with restraint and urgency in equal measure, like the ocean itself and the changing tides that inform the song's lyrical content: "Idle as a wave moving out at sea/ cruising without sound/ molding what's to be." It's perfectly placed as the lead track, immediately reminding us of Gonzalez's vitality as a musician who pulls on his heartstrings.

Easily the strongest cut on the album, 'Every Age' flows within the same anthemic vein of a Woody Guthrie tune. The drum beats like a determined, collective peoples' heart before echoey claps rise up in a 'We Are the World' sentiment. It's a call to arms, arms that encircle each one of us in hopeful solidarity.

"Take this dream of a better day/ take your time, build a home/ build a place where we all can belong." The search for meaning continues on 'What Will', which highlights the imagery of the album's title: "Vestiges and claws/ fight for a common cause/ What will it be, our legacy/ Faith in dogma or reasoning."

The bittersweetness of Gonzalez' idealisim is brought to the fore on 'Afterglow'. Rattlesnake percussion slithers its way through a barren desert devoid of life: "All of this will be gone someday/ you and me and everyone we know/ leaving memories and traces for the afterglow." It's a bleak, sobering realization on an otherwise mostly optimistic record. Elsewhere, instrumental 'Vissel' could have been left on the floor, although, it might be seen as a welcome lull, with its sparse whistling over the soothing balm of the guitar.

Vestiges & Claws seems to be simply about life. It's simple in a way that only artists like Gonzalez can execute - delicately deceptive so as to illuminate our world and its pulse without blinding us, yet direct in the bright accumulation of its rays.

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