I really want to like Jose Gonzalez. In fact, I’ve come pretty close in the past. Ostensibly, there’s nothing about him or his music I wouldn’t enjoy. Eclectic sound? Check. Diverse background and influences? Check. Pleasant folk music? Well, I love that! But every time I listen to one of his records, I find there’s just enough missing for me to not care. It’s either too repetitive, too fluttery, too lyrically loose, too derivative of Nick Drake, or even worse: all of the above. But, I like to like things that I think I should like. So, I was hoping that his latest release with Junip, a band he formed in the late ’90s with drummer Elias Araya and keyboardist Tobias Winterkorn, would provide me with another opportunity to find something worth loving in the Swedish-born Argentinean’s repertoire. But alas, with the final notes of Fields, Gonzalez and I part ways on almost identical terms. There’s just something, if not a few things, missing from this music.
Sure, on the whole–and even conceptually–this shit kicks. It’s rhythmically frantic, instrumentally intricate, and just pretty cool sounding. How does the idea of Afro-tinged, Latin-flavored, beautifully produced, rhythmic folk music sound to you? That’s what I thought. But–as is the case with most of Gonzalez’s work–interesting beats, flickering nylon strings, and a quivering voice can only go so far. It’s still too fluttery. It breezes by me. One can only nod his head so long without looking for a little more in the realm of song structure, vocal melodic variation, or even lyrics. These songs are lacking in a few departments, even if they incite some authentic head-bobbing. And though some nice synthesizers and noteworthy stickwork try to make things a little more interesting, the extra spices don’t add much to the general flavor. With all its jitter, it still tastes a little bland.
“In every direction” starts the thing off all badass, with eloquent strummed pulls meeting up with purring bass, bongos, scathing didgeridoo-like synthesizers, and oscillators. It’s easily the best song on Fields and sets the bar way too high for what’s to follow. Gonzalez’s vocals even get interesting. ”You’re the center and you’re always free/In every direction,” he sings with some catchiness.
But, save for a few standouts, all of the songs start off the same way: a little guitar lick meets up with some percussive jaunt, and the two stay together for a while, pretty much refusing to steer off-course. Gonzalez’s mumbly Nick Drake-meets-Graham Nash vocals enter in but generally sing the same lines repeatedly after some sort of verse. “Rope & Summit” is probably the best example of this tedium. ”Got a rope and summit,” sings Gonzalez continually over a steady beat and recurring fretplay. It sounds good, even really good for a minute or so, but then not much changes and the track just sort of fades out. In other places, Gonzalez’s lyrics are generally incomprehensible, but moreover, they don’t really feel like they mean much anyways. This is a problem.
“In Every Direction”, “Don’t Let it Pass”, “Without You”, and epic folk-gazy closer “Tide” are the only songs with some sort of unraveling, dynamic structure, and they don’t see Gonzalez’s voice laying down on the couch while the rhythms get caught up in a mechanic routine. On “Without You”, Gonzalez recalls Neil Young, actually creating a vocal melody that we can latch onto, as the track’s hip-hop-esque drums and melodic guitar work finally pave way for some variation in thick, heavy bass drones and swirling synths. It eventually even picks up, as crash symbols create some momentum. The synthesizer dips in harder, and we’ve got ourselves something besides a nice time signature to tap our feet to.
If Gonzalez could sound less vocally removed from the situation of his music, he could more often than not build a mountain for himself to climb and then descend, and this record would have a lot more going for it. He’s provided proof of that. The sad thing is that every song just falls short of being really good. For how much Fields is bursting with skittish rhythm and pretty strums, it feels horribly monotonous. Too bad, too, because these songs all have such great potential. Just a little tweak in song structure and singing style could have saved a number of them. It’s good background music, and there are some truly interesting things going on but just not enough. Sorry, Jose, but you’ve yet to turn me. Maybe next time, but…maybe not.