Sunday, October 17, 2010

Vincent Gallo - When (warp 2001) / Recordings Of Music For Film (warp 2002)

Point to any portion of Vincent Gallo's career-- from his acting in any of a number of underrated independent films, to his work with Jean-Michel Basquiat in the short-lived New York band Gray; from the writing at his self-maintained website, to his twisted directorial debut Buffalo 66-- and you'll always find something a bit off-kilter. Of course, it's in this very awkwardness that Gallo's appeal lies.
In the aforementioned film-- parts of which are admittedly autobiographical-- Gallo plays a loser named Billy who returns, upon his release from prison, to his hometown. On his first day back, he kidnaps a young girl, takes her to his parents' house for dinner, forces her to pretend she's his wife, and then proceeds to wander around town with her trailing closely behind. Over the course of the film, Billy realizes that there's nothing for him in this town, that he's every bit as lost as he'd been before jail. He recognizes the girl as his possible salvation, but finds himself too petrified to act upon this realization. Gallo wrote, directed, scored, and starred in the film; this hands-on approach no doubt the cause of much of its emotional resonance. He approaches When, his solo musical debut, in much the same way. Not only is Gallo the sole writer, performer and producer credited here, but his songs are imbued with the same emotional nakedness that made Buffalo 66 so engrossing.
Throughout the album, but on "Honey Bunny" in particular, Gallo appears to be mocking traditional lovesong lyrics. "Huh-uh-nee Buh-huh-nee," he sings in a faux-Prekopian swagger, dragging out each syllable, pausing between each pair as though to decide which romantic cliché best fits his intentions: "My Bay-ay-bee... girl... friend." Later, on "Laura," he repeats the titular figure's name a few dozen times, growing more desperate with each go-round. The sheer vapidity of these lyrics gives When the feel of a very private affair, like we're standing outside the door to Gallo's room while he sits on his bed inside, guitar in hand, wallowing in self-pity.
This voyeuristic effect is reminiscent of much of Smog's earlier work, though the means by which the two artists achieve it couldn't be further apart. The ingenuity here is not in the lyrics, but entirely in their delivery. Listening to When, one can't help but wonder if this is how Andy Kaufmann's audiences felt. As Gallo speak-sings, "Goodnight baby/ Sleep tight here with me/ We can lay in the bed, you and me/ And I won't go away or leave you alone/ Sweetie-pie/ Baby/ Sleep tight/ Here with me," on "Apple Girl," we're left scratching our heads, wondering if the effect is intentional or not.
I can only assume, based on Gallo's work as a filmmaker and his arrangements on some ofWhen's more ambitious tracks, that it is. Gallo may be self-indulgent, but he's certainly not oblivious. "I Wrote This Song for the Girl Paris Hilton," the disc's opener, begins with a short looped sample of an unwavering horn note, with guitar and drums in the background. Slowly, Gallo builds a song out of other sampled instruments-- a guitar here, an organ there-- piling them atop the relentless three-second foundation. The arrangement is clunky in the same way that a U.S. Maple song is, but this doesn't diminish its beauty. If anything, it serves as allegory for a mind we're led to assume is somewhat shaky and nervous. Consider it an early warning that the songs which follow are going to be a bit off kilter. The instrumentation is lush as can be, while the ever-present loop has a lulling effect that prepares listeners for the slow but beautiful ride through Gallo's fragile psyche to come.
When he samples an old recording of vibraphones on "Was," it's not the melody, but the actual sound that affects. Gallo's placement of the flat, faded, somewhat muted old recording over his own full, lush guitar strokes makes for an intriguing parallel. The sample, much like his character in Buffalo 66 and-- we're drawn to assume-- Gallo himself, doesn't quite belong. Yet, there's an undeniable beauty to the unlikely pairing.
Musically, most of When is sparse, reminiscent of the more haunting moments on Archer Prewitt's Gerroa Songs or a more subtle, less dynamic Bedhead. A lightly picked guitar and barely audible bass make up the bulk of the accompaniment to Gallo's nearly androgynous crooning, with the occasional string section that fades out as quickly as it came in. The result, when added to the often repetitive vocals is captivating, almost hypnotic. But once again, Gallo proves he's more aware than he lets on. On the next track, "My Beautiful White Dog," a gently plucked guitar continues to wander aimlessly, but it does so over a dirty old drum loop and an ominous string section which serves as a wake-up call, yanking the listener to attention after the calm opening tracks.
There's no denying that When is an exercise is self-indulgence. Much like Bufallo 66, it's an effort that, while deserving of respect and maybe even a bit of envy, is riddled with flaws. Just as some of the characters in his film lacked a backstory or a sense of purpose, so doesWhen. Though gorgeous and inexplicably well-crafted, it lacks scope; far too content to swim in circles in a pool of Gallo's emotions to ever strike ground that truly resonates. And even though their ambiguity often lends the lyrics much of their weight, it'd be nice to hear Gallo take a swing at something with a bit more depth than, "I'm always sad when I'm lonely/ I'm always sad."
Still, When is a gorgeous collection of songs which paint an undeniably clear picture of their creator. If, with his next project-- be it music, film or something else-- Gallo attempts to broaden his range, to understand something besides himself, there's no telling what heights he might reach.

Much as everyone seems to want to hate the man, it's proven increasingly difficult to dismiss the fact that Vincent Gallo is just too talented across far too many creative fronts. A ramshackle, home-made charm permeated the tracks presented on his debut album 'When' - released on Warp some months ago, and the same vulnerable patchwork permeates much of the material spread across the 29 tracks on offer here.
 Containing music recorded for films between 1979 and 1998, the deeply cinematic stretches veer from lo-fi accoustic trembles to electronic washes of ambience and static pops. The opening 15 tracks recorded for 1983's 'The Way It Is' sound unbeleivably accomplished, bare and creatively honest. The temptation is almost there to describe them as 'ahead of their time', but that would perhaps ignore the long tradition of form and strucure honoured by Gallo in his own deeply charming way.
 The 8 tracks included from Gallo's most known cinematic work - Buffalo '66 - open up with the truly mesmerisng 'Lonely Boy' - a kind of stripped layered melancholy in the finest singer-songwriter tradition that comes across as painfully auto-biographical, free of much of the arrogance and pretension that Gallo is reported to retain in character. Straight onto 1981's 'Downtown' and the 'Dum Beet' interlude, 20 seconds of treated lo-fi beats that offer a glimpse of proto-idm beat production in the most lo-fi sense, before 1979's 'If You Feel Froggy, Jump' unravels 3 tracks of open tape-edit experimentation inspired by the Concreté brigade with titles like 'Ass Fucker' and 'Ass Fucker (Reprise)' . 
A truly intriguing and deeply enjoyable release from Gallo, made indespensible with the inclusion of Gallo's sometimes hillarious and often controversial liner-notes that veer from pure sexist bitchin' to slanderous ranting to the final, deeply moving homage to Warp's Rob Mitchell who passed away late last year.

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