Ron Gallo ventures towards art rock with ‘Stardust Birthday Party’


So I wasn’t expecting this.

Sure, when Ron Gallo came right the hell out of nowhere to blow my mind with the brilliantly witty, terrifically nasty album HEAVY META in 2017, I knew we were dealing with a very real talent that I was sure was going to throw me for a loop consistently, and when he followed it with the Really Nice Guys EP in January of this year which seemed to be an extended satire of the experience of the working musician, I knew that he would be have to be someone to watch. What I wasn’t expecting was that Ron Gallo would have another project ready as early as this October, which I only assumed to be another slice of self-aware satire but buzz was suggesting was a much more gentle, introspective affair, blending in elements of funk and art rock… which yes, could indeed be very interesting, but given what I know about Gallo’s delivery I wasn’t sure this was a direction that’d really flatter him in comparison with the acerbic fire that stoked HEAVY META. Still, he’s a fantastic songwriter, I really wanted to hear this as soon as I could, what did we get from Stardust Birthday Party?

Well, here’s the thing: I was planning on putting this album on the Trailing Edge – yes, I know what that says about this album, I’ll get to why in a minute – but every time I sat down to put that together, I kept finding more things to say that really demanded a full review, so let’s lay the cards on the table. Because yes, I definitely liked this album and Ron Gallo remains the sort of artist in garage and indie rock I want to hear… but I can’t in good conscience say this is on the same level as either HEAVY META or Really Nice Guys, and it’s surprisingly complicated to explain why. Very good album, for sure, but I would struggle to call it great.

Hell, more to the point, I’d struggle to call it more distinctive, which starts us off with what many people have branded as the biggest issue with Ron Gallo: originality. Now I’ve always been of the opinion that his viciously acerbic songwriting, wild delivery, and flair for deconstruction does plenty to make him seem unique within this style of rock, all the more pronounced with the stylistic production choices behind Really Nice Guys in sampling and composition. And I would like to say that Stardust Birthday Party continues in that tradition… but in truth while the influence of acts like The Rolling Stones was evident on previous albums, it’s really hard for me to ignore how much their psychedelic blues-driven edge rubs off on this album here. And when it’s not them and you get the more wiry grooves dominating the back half of the album, it’s hard not to look at the nerdier side of post-punk and art rock in the late 70s and see a similar parallel to the tones and attitude Gallo is using here – which wouldn’t be an issue if the hooks were as catchy or witty as they were on previous projects! The problem is that in aiming for more of a languid, psychedelic approach across some of these song fragments – still tainted with enough edge because this is Ron Gallo but there is less firepower – and tamping down on the scuzz of the mix, the sharper hooks wind up feeling fewer and far between.

But again, this is Ron Gallo, and the more listens I’ve given this the less you can really pin down a direct influence or say he’s ripping anyone off than a hodgepodge squished together with gummy, increasingly claustrophobic feedback. ‘Always Elsewhere’ comes after the intro with a guitar line that seems most reminiscent of early 70s Deep Purple, ‘”You” Are The Problem’ is the most blatant Beatles homage, the funkier side of ‘Love Supreme (Work Together)’ could have been cribbed from The Talking Heads, and half the groove on ‘Do You Love Your Company?’ could very easily have been extracted from Jack White less blues or any sense of composure. And look, none of this is precisely bad – with the exception of ‘Love Supreme (Work Together)’ which proves that David Byrne’s command of jittery grooves is exceedingly hard to replicate, all the songs I just listed are among my favourites on this album, but that’s not a good sign when I’m looking for the elements besides Gallo himself that make this album distinct or better than its influences. Because when you dig deeper and realize how the sticky grooves can compromise any drum fidelity outside of the kickdrum, or how the glittery beeping doesn’t quite mesh with everything else, or how a fair few of these cuts are solid but not exactly exceptional garage rock burners with distortion that feels increasingly blocky and synthetic, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed by it all.

But fine, the biggest selling point for me with Ron Gallo has always been his songwriting and delivery, and outside of one ill-advised venture into falsetto on ‘Love Supreme (Work Together)’, he still has buckets of howling, nasal personality… but then we dig into what’s actually being put forward on this record, where much of the satirical firepower turned towards his scene and his music now points directly at himself… and to his credit, he doesn’t hold back tearing into his over-analyzed, indecisive, self-flagellating side to the point of questioning whether he enjoys his own company. Perhaps a shade more direct than I’d prefer – most of this was in subtext on HEAVY META and Really Nice Guys anyway – but I was onboard… and then midway through the album it takes a turn into what can charitably be described as hippie territory, and while the interlude ‘OM’ seems to try at least to take the piss out of it, you come to the surprising realization a fair amount of this is actually sincere. Worse still, it’s the brand of hippie ‘enlightenment’ that doesn’t seem interested in engaging with an actual ideal beyond ‘the more you know the less you truly know’ and hasn’t picked up any of the social conscience of that era. And here’s the thing: Ron Gallo is usually operating on some level of irony so I was looking for where he’d eventually wink at the audience, but beyond a lingering sense of fatalism that we’re all going to wind up dead – which he seems to parody on ‘I Wanna Die (Before I Die)’, it doesn’t have that moment beyond a really condescending breakup song with ‘Bridge Crossers’, and by following it with ‘Happy Deathday’, the album hits a really bitter note.

And look, there’s always been some sour melancholy to Ron Gallo’s music, but it’s usually redeemed or tempered by enough biting wit or firepower to land the joke or just kick enough ass we stop caring. Here… the writing isn’t as sharp, the production feels increasingly claustrophobic, and while the album can still feel insanely catchy, there are less true standouts, and their lineage is even more plain to the naked eye. So as a whole, yes, I still like this, but it’s a step back from what I’ve liked about Ron Gallo’s past few projects, netting a light 7/10 from me and mostly a recommendation for fans. If you’re looking for a Ron Gallo project from this year to check out, I’d stick with Really Nice Guys, because this… well, you might hit nirvana for a few moments, but it’s not worth the come down.

Review by Mark Grondin
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