Saturday, January 20, 2018

album review: 'really nice guys' by ron gallo

At this point of his career, you can tell Ron Gallo is simply enjoying the practice of screwing with our expectations - and boy, does he want you to know it. His last project HEAVY META was half targeted at the gentrified faux-hipster Gen-X and millennial crowd falling in line... and half-targeted at himself for being not far from that crowd himself. He's smart enough to earn his nasal obnoxiousness, but doesn't spare himself from the crosshairs with his dry sarcasm and some genuine fury lurking beneath - and when you factor in he's pairing it with some of the best garage rock in recent years, it should be no surprise at all he wound up on multiple year-end lists from me.

And so when I hear he put out an EP called Really Nice Guys, you know deep down he's going to be taking the piss out of that archetype and sound amazing doing it, stripping out the gratuitous moments that might have dragged on HEAVY META for something ruthlessly effective - so yeah, of course I was going to cover this as soon as I could, especially if it was to be a quick listen. So how was it?

Well, to the surprise of nobody, it's pretty damn great - but it's the sort of greatness that appeals the most to a very specific subset of listeners, and I can see audiences who are coming for more of the garage rock riffs and huge hooks balanced with the commentary being a bit dissatisfied by the lack of the former. The metaphor I keep coming back to with Really Nice Guys is 'inside baseball', and probably will be best understood and appreciated by people within the music industry who can pick up on the specific scenarios Ron Gallo is presenting, which is one of the reasons I'm grateful this is an EP more than a full record because it could be alienating to a larger audience.

So okay, what is Really Nice Guys about? To put it most simply: it is a record about the nuances of being a ground-level independent musician on the come-up in a very localized scene - and when I say local, this is a record that makes explicit reference to east Nashville places, most of which I actually visited when I was staying there last summer. But the experience is transferable, especially as someone who isn't an artist but who is somewhat known in the scene all the same. And into all of it comes Ron Gallo, who is fully aware of his own acerbic pettiness and is yet still trying to cultivate relationships in that scene - the title track is all about musicians he thinks are godawful but they're really nice guys and you can't exactly say to their face that they suck! Of course, Gallo is smart enough to follow those observations with his own band screwing up, and it's more a portrait of the juxtaposition of crippling self-doubt and delusions of grandeur that characterizes any artist - or critic - on the come-up in such a local scene. 'I'm On The Guestlst' was a particularly striking example, going in excruciating detail between the encounter with the huge bouncers at the door to be on that list - simultaneously inflating and deflating your own importance - the mass texts from friends trying to get on it too - something you never want to be but you probably are - all before leaving early as you know you played that venue before and your own complicated feelings are coming the forefront. And 'The East Nashville Kroeger Conversation' is particularly striking, a conversational interlude between working artists in a grocery story that I actually visited, and between the half-remembered details and people, subtle probes for information, and promises to attend gigs that will likely never occur, it was almost too real.

And yes, if this all sounds up-its-own-ass... well, it is, but there's a few factors that make it tolerable. For one, Gallo is intensely aware of everything he's doing and he's actively seeking to demystify the working musician or industry person picture, mostly because he's intensely aware of what the role of his art is, and actively hates it if it's misconstrued. That's one reason why 'Related Artists' is a brutal slice of hardcore screaming at bloggers and sorting algorithms trying to categorize the art and doing it poorly, or why 'Emotional Impact For Sale' is just a hope that the response he inspires in culture at large matches the expectations placed upon him as an artist. And it's very telling how he ends the record with 'Pull Quote', featuring vocals from his mother's boyfriend Jerry juxtaposing a slew of pull-quotes that he got when playing his EP, all picked up with a hidden microphone - and proof that even if you're trying to command a narrative, everyone else's impression of it on aggregate is what really sticks, something that could easily drive any working artist a little crazy. But hey, in the era of web culture - including the comments section below - Gallo isn't wrong. 

So it's not surprising why I would find this tremendously compelling as an art piece, but as an album does it work? Honestly, a little tough to say - you certainly have moments where Gallo and his band cut loose with a phenomenal blend of fuzzed-out riffing and great basslines, but you can also tell he's flexing his creative muscles a fair bit more here, using the music more as an outgrowth of thematic ideas than outright songs. Take 'Rough Mix' - starts off with a mono iPhone recording before becoming a live band demo and then a completely overdone studio mix, but look how the lyrics subtly shift from the song being the rough mix to the artist at the core being the real dissonant element. Or the instrumental track 'YouTubular', which Gallo admits he jammed with instrumental phrases from over a dozen other songs and included simply so he could have a track called 'YouTubular' on the project - but it shows that awareness of how commentors and the fandom will actively dissect it for each piece. Or how on 'Pull Quote', even as Jerry's voice is spliced across a heavy, grinding guitar phrase for the hook, his voice is layered into an incomprehensible blur to show that cacophony of contradicting opinion. But as for as much as I love the chugging, scuzzy riff on the title track, or the weird Garageband loops blended into 'I'm On The Guestlist', to the Beatles-esque vocal harmonies and warmer guitar phrases interweaving with the bass harmony on 'Emotional Impact For Sale', there just aren't that many full songs on this record, and I can see that leaving audiences outside the industry wishing this was more fleshed out. 

But as a whole, for what this is I enjoyed the hell out of Really Nice Guys - the production textures and hooks when we get them are terrific, the writing is top-notch and frequently really damn funny, and if you're connected to the music industry at all in any capacity - be it musician, promoter, producer or critic - a lot of this record will earn the phrase 'too real'. I'll freely admit this is a harder sell to everyone else - again, this record's nuances feel very 'inside-baseball' - but for me at least, easy 8/10, definitely a terrific EP, and if you have 23 minutes to burn, this is a great way to do it and it'll definitely keep you thinking beyond that. In other words, you'll definitely want to check this out!

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