I strolled over to the Black Cat on 14th Street last Friday night to catch the Swedish folk singer Jose Gonzalez. Thanks to a few good words from the indie press and his inclusion in a popular Sony Bravia advertisement, Jose, whose parents are Argentinean, seems to be making inroads in the States this year. The crowd was larger than I expected and surprisingly keen to see a frumpy European diddle around on his guitar for a most of an hour.
I dig Jose's whisperish, Nick Drake-like sound, but his original compositions often leave me wanting more. I'm a melody guy. I like my songs sharp with personality and emotion. And most of Jose's tunes are, like Drake's, brief, elliptical and abstract. That's why I think his strongest performances come when he covers other songs. The Sony ad is a remake of a song called "Heartbeats" by another Swedish band, The Knife. And, like his excellent covers of Kylie Minogue's "Hand on you Heart" (for a little fun, compare the original video to the cover) and Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," it succeeds wonderfully in bringing out the melancholy and dispair hidden in an otherwise upbeat song.
The Springsteen cover is, I think, particularly fitting. Despite its anthemic chorus, "Born in the USA" is hardly a celebration of America. By removing the refrain and unplugging the amplifiers, Jose emphasizes the lyric's narrative of a Vietnam vet who returns home alienated from society and scarred by war. Click here to download an .mp3 recording of Jose's recent live performance.