A Humdrum Gala: Joel RL Phelps’s New Record is a Great Listen When Taking a Nap

The latest from Montana indie crooner Joel RL Phelps, elegantly titled Gala, is less of the sophisticated, expensive party that the title implies, and more of a tired get-together with a few old friends in the back room of your local dive bar.

The album revisits musical motifs that never truly went away, and touches on them with what seems to be sincere affection, but falls just shy of the mark of paying proper tribute, or emulating with enthusiasm.

Tracks like the opener “That Nashville Sound” and “So You’ve Decided” pump the listless blood of the Seattle grunge scene in the ’90s. Phelps drones in his flat, expressionless tone, his feelings laid bare for the listener to experience, and the verdict is in—he’s not experiencing too much.

While this works with the grunge songs, it puts a damper on other tracks such as “University Gal,” when Phelps dispassionately drawls the lyrics “Arlene, I’m going to murder you/with my own bare hands,” with the conviction of a bored cashier asking for a price check.

“University Gal” is a standout track because of the mystery of the story behind it, and upon listening to it one gets the feeling that Phelps was trying to find his inner balladeer, making it one of the more interesting tracks on the album.

There is very little production on Gala, leaving you alone with the instruments and the singer, which admittedly is something to draw in many a purist (including yours truly), whether they love grunge, indie rock or something else you may find in the layers of this album.

The album leaves you feeling that there ought to be a touch more elaboration on the tracks when you’re listening to them. When you’re not staring off into space during one of the meandering instrumental interludes, you’re highly aware of just how simple the tracks are.

This is music you can listen to on a rainy day, or while taking a long bus ride somewhere with said rainy day drizzling by. It’s something strange, to be taken in slowly; it pairs well with life, but is too starchy a flavour by itself.

In that sense, the album is a rare gem. The overall mix is monotone, generally washed in the same sonic shade, which may or may not have been an intentional artistic choice. It walks the fine line between being a carefully assembled cohesive unit and just plain dull. The highest high and the lowest low in Gala are nearly side-by-side.

Overall, I’m going to give the album 6/10 for some interesting lyrics, grunge aura and for pairing well with a cup of coffee. However, the lack of dynamic interest in the vocals and melodies, and the monotone feeling throughout the tracks means this album may just slip beneath the radar of things that will change your life.

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