José Gonzàlez’s Vestiges & Claws, is a record that is easy to overlook. It is soft spoken and understated, much like the artist himself. But upon giving it a closer look, or listen rather, you’ll find that Gonzàlez’s third full-length album is one of the best albums of 2015.
With his first solo work in seven years, Gonzàlez’s sound has changed from his previous albums while still encapsulating the qualities that longtime listeners have fallen in love with. The instrumentation is still minimalistic, but less so than his previous work. Like those records, In Our Nature and Veneer, the foundation of the album’s sound is Gonzàlez’s mellow voice accompanied by rhythmic acoustic guitar. But on Vestiges & Claws, Gonzàlez has added to that foundation with layered backup vocals, more intricate guitar parts and sparse but well-placed percussion. The sound Gonzàlez manages to produce appears to be simple, but when all of these basic pieces are put together, it combines into an intricate sonic landscape.
In the description of Gonzalez’s episode of NPR’s tiny desk concert (which I highly recommend watching), Bob Boilen wrote, “[Gonzalez’s] songs are full of abstract imagery – more paintings than stories.” I couldn’t agree more. Gonzalez somehow tells very compelling stories without speaking to specific details. When listening to Vestiges & Claws, the music gives an image of the emotions Gonzàlez wants to express, but the listener is never privy to the who, what, when, where or why. This kind of imagery can be found on every song, like on “The Forest” when he sings, “Why didn’t I see/ The forest on fire behind the trees.”
For such soft music, the simple melodies have a shocking vulnerability that leaves an impact. Gonzàlez paints beautiful, unassuming waves of sound that fill the listener’s chest and settle there, staying long after a song ends. The best example of this is the last song on the album, “Open Book.” In few words, Gonzàlez conveys bittersweet nostalgia, singing, “I feel just like an open book/ exposing myself and this neighborhood” and “What am I doing here? What is this leading to?/ What’s the point of all, without you?”
Similar to his previous records, he also frequently repeats simple, mantra-like phrases, such as “Let the light lead you out” on “Leaf Off/The Cave,” leaving the music to speak for itself. In his soft-spoken way, Gonzalez sings these lines with moving direction.
Overall, Vestiges & Claws is a record that takes José Gonzàlez’s sound as an artist to another level. It may initially seem basic or understated, but after giving it a listen, you will be pleasantly surprised with its hidden complexity.
by Maeve McKaig