Sunday, April 2, 2017

album review: 'HEAVY META' by ron gallo

I'm not sure where to start with this guy. Odds are unless you have dug very deep into Bandcamp you probably haven't heard of him - and yes, this is another act who wound up here thanks to Patreon. 

And yet I'm really happy I found Ron Gallo, because he represents a weird sort of intersection point in music that really is right up my alley. There's definitely an element of the 70s singer-songwriter style that I like, but thanks to recording his debut album RONNY in Nashville he also stepped towards country tones with pedal steel and more liquid guitar tones. And that's before you factor in Gallo as a singer: basically, imagine a cross between Josh Tillman and some of Ty Segall's more restrained cuts, with the same over-educated theatrical swagger balanced with an slightly offkilter air of sleazy weirdness that's almost more unspoken that it comes through the subtle but often really clever writing. And let's not mince words, RONNY is a great record in 2014, especially for a debut, and I see why the guy who recommended it also cited Kyle Craft... and while I can see the similarities, Craft was pulling from a much more ragged, outcast wheelhouse, whereas with the late 60s-early 70s country callbacks and obvious affection for Harry Nilsson, Gallo is balanced a little closer.

So yeah, I was excited to hear what his followup this year would lead to - he's a good songwriter, I like his voice, and his command of well-established melodic structures is solid, so how does HEAVY META turn out?

Well, it's certainly a shift, that's for damn sure. I referenced a balance between Josh Tillman and Ty Segall for Ron Gallo's first record, but this album tilts much more heavily towards the Segall side of the equation - the songs are beefier, noisier, and a lot nastier to boot, far closer to the scuzzy sides of garage rock than the acoustic melodies that ran through his debut. And if you felt disappointed at all that Ty Segall's last self-titled album didn't have the same edge or catchiness as his previous records, HEAVY META is exactly what you'll be looking for, and I daresay it'll be one of the best albums you'll hear in 2017. Yeah, this album kind of snuck up on me - and believe me, I'm absolutely thrilled that it did.

So let's start with the production and instrumentation - and as I said, it's a much meatier affair than the last time around, but that doesn't mean it's not melodically diverse, or that there aren't some great fantastic hooks here to boot. The one thing that Ron Gallo seems to get is balance across these songs, because while he will give the tracks room enough to breathe for a sizzling, extended outro like on 'Black Market Eyes' or 'Don't Mind The Lion', it works for the mood and atmosphere of these tracks in intensifying any sense of dread or unnerving psychedelia - and if I were to point to the element that makes it work, it's the basslines. Yes, I love the hints of surf rock that creep into the melody on the irresistible hook of 'Put The Kids To Bed', the flattened noisy groove of 'Poor Traits Of The Artist', the odd sauntering groove of 'Why Do You Have Kids?' that almost seems to bleed smug condescension in the best way possible with a great solo, or the faded watery tone behind 'All The Punks Are Domesticated', but the reason so much of this works is because the bassline is prominent and often plays counterpoint with a distinct melody of its own. Look at the complexity of how it sits opposite an already strong guitar line on 'Young Lady, You're Scaring Me', or how it pretty much drives 'Can't Stand You' or the muffled smolder of 'Started A War', almost to the point where it overtakes the guitar entirely, but the mixing is so sharp and crisp that the melodic tones are cutting through regardless. I'm not saying it's all perfect - 'Kill The Medicine Man' is a bit choppy for me, I wasn't wild about the fadeout on 'Can't Stand You', and despite being effective and punchy in the punk influence, I think 'Please Yourself' could have had a little more to it, but really, that's nitpicking!

And a big part of this is Ron Gallo himself as a frontman - and man, this is one of those cases you knew he had a lot of firepower and charisma off a more restrained debut, but HEAVY META lets him cut loose in the best way possible. He still has his more restrained or or smoother moments, but he can ratchet up the tension near instantly by throwing more of a bite into his delivery, or in the case of 'All The Punks Are Domesticated', a tempo change and crescendo that's incredibly well-executed. A lot of this is made all the harsher by vocal production that picks up the sharper grit and contrast in his voice - or in the case of 'Started A War' opts for a muffled distance that actually serves to compliment the scene of the song. And keep in mind Gallo is walking a tight line here - for many of these tracks he needs to be convincing in being righteously pissed... but he's not exactly playing a likable character. That's where the nasal tones come through and where the Kyle Craft comparison is quite valid - he's not nearly as theatrical, but that also fits the sardonic, misanthropic tone of many of these tracks.

And this is where we get to the content... and whoo boy, here's where things get interesting. See, the cleverness of Gallo's commentary has always run through his writing - go back to a song on RONNY like the brilliantly titled 'Fine Diners & Finer Whiners' and you'll hear it. But if you flip over to songs like 'Why Do You Have Kids?', where it seems like there's naked contempt for parents who 'make children' and can't care for them adequately, or finding the empty commercialism of a girl on 'Black Market Eyes', or the continuous stream of sarcasm that runs through 'Young Lady, You're Scaring Me' or the utterly dead relationship of 'Put The Kids To Bed', it can read as obnoxious... and man, does Gallo know it. It's a similar fine line that a show like You're The Worst walks, where you know that Jimmy, one of the leads, is really a total asshole, but within the context of his worldview there's a part of you that knows where he's coming from when he's right, and is framed to call him out when he's wrong. It's the same thing with Gallo - he's abrasive and self-pitying on 'Poor Traits Of The Artist', or utterly contemptuous on 'Can't Stand You' - at least until you realize that said message could also be an internal monologue, or how 'Please Yourself' can ring as masturbation... he's also not really all that wrong, and the songs don't excuse him when he is. He might be handling them badly and his rage might feel directionless at points, but he never removes himself from the framing and it's not like he doesn't make real points. Confronting alcohol abuse on 'Kill The Medicine Man', mindless consumerism on 'Black Market Eyes', people who probably shouldn't have kids on 'Why Do You Have Kids?', or an aging, increasingly sterile music industry on 'All The Punks Are Domesticated' - they have the tone of an obnoxious curmudgeon, but not only does he know it, but he also understands the implications behind it - the subtext and metatext cut the sting of the harsher delivery, but not enough that it doesn't bite when it needs to go past being tongue-in-cheek.

So in other words, while I would say there's less of a coherent theme than just frustration and anger, I'd say it's more of a well-textured character portrait with plenty of self-awareness. And I have to say, I really do like it. Even at its worst there's attitude, swagger, and a real brain behind the muscle of the guitars, the great grooves, and some tight as hell hooks. It's the sort of rock pivot not enough singer-songwriters in Gallo's lane try, and the fact he pulled it off so damn well is a huge plus. In other words, HEAVY META is an awesome little record, deserving a very light 9/10 and so much of a recommendation. There's not a bad track from front to back, the melodic grooves balance against real bite tempered with great instincts, and Ron Gallo is one hell of a frontman. Easily one of the most consistent rock records you'll hear this year, and one that'll deserve a lot of acclaim - I can't recommend it highly enough.

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