Album Review: Ron Gallo – Foreground Music

[Kill Rock Stars; 2023]

Ron Gallo presses on a central dilemma on his latest album FOREGROUND MUSIC: how does one balance a duty to a greater good with personal sanity? This dilemma is discussed in many forms throughout the album’s 11 songs; from gentrification to misogyny, colonial pasts to sustainability. And like anyone being honest with themselves will admit, there’s no easy answer.

Indeed, Gallo describes FOREGROUND MUSIC as what an existential crisis would sound like if it could also be fun (the song’s title track wallows in Gallo’s self-questioning). And 2023 doesn’t lack fodder to fuel said crisis. “AT LEAST I’M DANCING” rolls along an off-kilter blend of teasing guitar hooks and gritty riffs. Yet the song’s namesake isn’t so much a node to escapism as the succumbing to a necessary distraction. He admits as much on “VANITY MARCH”; as much as he loathes gentrification, it’s in the context of how it affects you, me, and himself. “Because I can’t see past myself these days.” It’s this selfish self-awareness that breathes authenticity into his music.

Another distillation of Gallo’s approach some through “CAN MY FLOWERS EVEN GROW HERE?” The song rides along a swaying 1960s era guitar rhythm, yet is punctured with a laundry list of lamentations: the wear of modern dating, the numbness to news that’s more urgent by the day. He questions the utility of owning one hundred-plus t-shirts and apples on the title track; “How is there enough raw materials?” he asks. He admits that he only wears the same three but can’t help himself but acquiring more; “I’ve got 124 too many / and they just keep coming”. Meanwhile, the slacker, Mac DeMarco-esque “YUCCA VALLEY MARSHALLS” finds Gallo returning to his hometown Marshall’s for some nostalgia, but “Only to find I’m now half of myself.” The song’s dream-like atmosphere doesn’t comfort so much as compliment that dizzying experience of hitting emotional breakthroughs in real time.

But let’s not forget that Gallo has a knack for tackling any topic with an air of levity, whether it be through his vocal delivery (take note of his howling on previous album HEAVY META’s “Young Lady, You’re Scaring Me”) or the sarcasm and hyperbole weaved into his lyrics. It’s this quality that tempers what could otherwise be too on-the-nose observations and lamentations about today’s world. The upbeat surf rhythms of “SAN BENEDETTO” elevate another song about personal crisis (this time, following Gallo from the namesake Italian City to JFK). “ANYTHING BUT THIS” roars with the gritty rock most akin to Gallo’s work on HEAVY META. Despite the song being the penultimate on the album, the lyrics act more like an epilogue and allow the music to take over. It’s a necessary, if late, break from an album that otherwise never strays from its mission statement.

And Gallo is equally adept at delivering blows when the moment is right. Perhaps the most biting lines of “Entitled Man”—a song exactly about what its title implies —comes at the chorus: “Just because she walks before you / Doesn’t mean you mean anything to her now.” The ballad “BIG TRUCK ENERGY”—with a title that feels over-the-top, even for Gallo—is imbued with genuine empathy. Indeed, the strings glide alongside a drooping bass and dreamy guitar strums invite this interpretation. The first time Gallo asks the song’s central question—“Do you feel better now?”— feels like sarcastic derision. Yet Gallo eventually puts himself in the shoes of those toxic men: “So I hide behind this tough exterior / But inside I feel so inferior.”

His empathy comes to a head on album closer “I LOVE SOMEONE BURIED DEEP INSIDE OF YOU.” Here, he understands that people are a result of their circumstances, many of which are beyond their control. Gallo doesn’t offer any solutions—he knows he’s in no position to. All he can do is press on the pains of the moment, and doing so just until he laughs.