Vincent Gallo : When

Grumpy polymath's elegant debut.

Actor, film director, model, artist, musician, Republican-supporting loudmouth and one-time performer in a gay burlesque show, Vincent Gallo has always followed his own uncompromising path. In the mid-Seventies, pre-punk, he would stalk the streets clad only in a blue mohican and 1920s bathing costume; in 2001, he has refused all interview requests about this album unless he gets the cover. A man of firm opinion once described as “arrogant, rude and more abrasive than a Brillo pad”, he’s a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad.

Though Gallo is best known for his film directoral debut, the great ‘Buffalo 66’, he’s been making music since 1975. In the early eighties he formed a band with famed New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; much more recently, he recorded a Lee Hazlewood cover with his rumoured paramour PJ Harvey. None of which has any obvious connection to ‘ When’, a collection of incongruously delicate and wistful songs featuring vaguely jazzy inflections and Gallo’s tremulous tenor. Confused? You will be. But you might find yourself being beguiled, charmed and – who knows? – eventually seduced.

The first song, the eccentrically-titled instrumental ‘I Wrote This Song For The Girl Paris Hilton’ sets the mood. Replete with mournful woodwind, brushed percussion and jazzy, lurching piano, it does nothing in particular, but it does it with a certain style. ‘When’ debuts Gallo’s doleful and elliptical lyrics – further tracks like ‘Honey Bunny’, ‘Yes I’m Lonely’ and ‘Laura’ intensify the mood of vaguely creepy romantic ennui. It’s all lonely hotel rooms, half-smoked cigarettes, and probably something nasty lurking just outside.

Yet actually working out why this album is good (which it is) is difficult. You won’t be whistling the tunes, and Gallo’s voice, while certainly distinctive, isn’t among the greats. Yet in that corniest of lines, ‘When’ has that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. Among his many enthusiasms, Gallo is a hi-fi expert and this album proudly bears the credit that it was recorded at ‘The University For The Development And Theory Of Magnetic Tape Recorded Music Studios’. And while fancy recording techniques often make no difference to anyone but the most tragic of trainspotters, ‘ When”s elusive appeal may well lie in its production (wait! Come back!). Dry, intimate and laden with atmosphere, there’s something here which teases the very fringes of human consciousness. Gallo may not be reknowned for subtlety in his life, but he’s a master of it in his work.

Alex Needham