One of the odder descriptions assigned to the music of Sotto Voce, a.k.a. singer-songwriter Ryan Gabos, is “bedroom pop”. It’s not to say that Gabos dreams up seductive slow jams designed for a night of romance; rather, the execution of the 13 songs on his latest release, Safety, sound like they were recorded in a small Brooklyn apartment with an arsenal of lo-fi instruments and some basic home recording equipment. Safety has that kind of intimate, DIY aesthetic.
That could very well be the case here. The Pittsburgh-born-and-raised Gabos – who does, in fact, call Brooklyn his home – writes, sings, and performs everything you hear on Safety. And while the music has a rough-hewn, home demo quality to it, the songs have a timeless power pop, post-punk feel that seem to draw from multiple influences. The opening track “(Let’s Not Tempt The) Supervolcano” recalls the twitchy anxiety and relentless guitar riffing of early XTC. The song’s title even evokes the same kind of paranoia, warning against the instability of today’s world awakening impending natural disasters.
But as with the best songwriters, Gabos can slide into a variety of musical styles with relative ease. “Utah’s Dime” has a laid-back, almost soulful feel, with chunky, jazzy guitars creating a perfect summer single. This is almost in direct contrast to the typically oddball, almost stream-of-consciousness lyrics: “You took one look at my Otter Box and said / ‘I’ve just the thing’ / Now I’m the proud owner of a seafoam green phone case / Your university’s per diem took the hit.” Befitting the kitchen-sink style ethos at work, an engaging keyboard solo is thrown in for good measure. “It’s coming out in weird ways,” the dreamy, falsetto-laden chorus goes. Yeah, no kidding.
It’s hard to tell exactly where Gabos’ most prominent influences lie. There are snatches of Something/Anything-era Todd Rundgren here, in addition to the tuneful, intimate experimentalism of Yo La Tengo, and even the freewheeling, genre-busting ambition of the Who. “A Quick One While She’s in a Bad Way” is an obvious titular nod to Pete Townshend’s 1966 mini-opera, although it may only be a winking, title-twisting homage. The chiming, fingerpicking guitars and breezy tempo owe more to quirky ’90s indie rock than radio-friendly rock anthems, and Gabos throws the title in the lyrics almost as an afterthought: “Momentum dwindles / What can I say? / Here’s a quick one while she’s in a bad way.”
Considering it’s all the work of one person, Safety is surprisingly ambitious, and Gabos’ musical chops seem to fly in the face of what sounds like the lack of a proper recording studio. He uses this strange dichotomy to his advantage, though: there’s something refreshingly startling about hearing knotty guitar work and gently sighing vocal melodies combine with a somewhat claustrophobic lo-fi atmosphere, as on songs like “Judy Greer”. “I can never say just what I’m trying to say,” Gabos sings, “Your face, your eyes make be so / Carry all my problems from my apartment to the J / And listen to sad songs as I go.” Gabos brings equal weight to problems both global (natural disasters) and personal (relationships).
“For a third of life / Our eyes are closed / But you can’t see what you’re sleeping away,” Gabos sings on the ambitious “Samadhi Ecstasy”. Among the dense guitar work of that song, there’s a sense of humanity that make it – and the rest of Safety – a deeply relatable and instantly lovable album. Depending on where Ryan Gabos takes Sotto Voce, part of me hopes that he doesn’t stumble across a proper recording studio. The intimacy of these songs seems inextricably linked to home recording. That’s one of the many things that make the album such a beautiful, irresistible piece of work.