Maybe quiet really is the new loud. What else would explain the seeming incongruity of bad-boy filmmaker Vincent Gallo producing an album as simple, understated, and moving as When? Best known as the auteur behind 1998's Buffalo '66, Gallo is one of those celebrities whose fame overshadows his achievements. In the '70s he ran with New York's bohemian elite, playing in a band with legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the '80s and '90s he positioned himself as a postmodern Renaissance man, acting in films like Palookaville and The Funeral, modeling for Calvin Klein, and playing in Bunny, a short-lived but hotly touted collaboration with actor Lukas Haas. But Gallo might be most famous for his vitriol — usually aimed at Hollywood peers like Christina Ricci and Harmony Korine — and his overblown ego.
None of this hype or horror shows up on When, however. The opening track, “I Wrote This Song for the Girl Paris Hilton,” may name-check an infamous New York socialite, but there's no swagger or bombast in the instrumental number. Given Hilton's reputation — the 20-year-old heiress and former girlfriend of Leonardo DiCaprio is known mainly for her sexpot looks and her antics on the party circuit — the sad, throaty saxophone loop and muted guitar swirls seem intriguingly inappropriate, suggesting an untold story or secret hurt.
When he sings, Gallo becomes even less like his persona. On the title track, he croons a simple love song of attraction and ambivalence, with mundane lyrics that prove clumsily charming (“When you come near to me/ I go away/ What is not clear for me/ I go away”). Vocally, Gallo's multitracked falsetto establishes a quiet intimacy that's at odds with his abrasive public figure.
England's Warp label makes an odd home for such a lilting collection of lo-fi balladry: The album is closer in spirit to Sebadoh or Cat Power than to the fractured beats of labelmates like Autechre or Aphex Twin. While “Yes I'm Lonely” adds a faint analog synth drone to the mix, the tune's a far cry from electronica. If anything, When sounds more like the Velvet Underground's softer moments, reaching back to an earlier model for “experimental” music.
Gallo strays off his chosen path twice: on “Cracks,” a four-track draft of drifting keys and noodling guitar that should've stayed a demo; and on the seven-minute-long “A Picture of Her,” which mistakes muddled rumination for inspiration. But these songs are the only lowlights on an otherwise wonderful album. More than a collection of gorgeous, melancholic numbers, When is a fascinating character study — and proof, perhaps, that even the most unrepentant asshole can be a softie inside.