What can save the skinny-indie-white-boy blues? When the paeans of wooden fence post and swaying wheat stalk and love longed-for and lost no longer ring sweet on the ears of the folk gods, what’s a band like Two Gallants to do? This is the call to action that lies implicit in the duo’s fourth LP, The Bloom and the Blight, a record that pulls an angry black leather jacket over the scratchy flannel shirt of yesteryear. Two Gallants never were the orthodox folk duo – their debut and best album The Throes was more a precursor to the rural garage sound of Titus Andronicus on The Monitor than your standard acoustic affair – but the heavy distortion that permeates this new effort comes off as combative, come-hell-or-high-water.
Dressing up the ballade form and the band’s hit-or-miss lyrics with a rawer sound is the record’s thesis. On “My Love Won’t Wait,” a spurned lover promises to “come by when you’re most alone/ my coat pockets full of stones/ to hurl at your window while you sleep” as power chords crack open like thunderheads. “Ride Away” matches anachronistic phrasing (“As I went up the hill/ to see the sisters three/ the only words that they could say/ were ‘soon they’ll come for thee’ ”) with extended grunge riffs, but “Broken Eyes” and “Decay” are grounded firmly in nylon strings. It’s actually on “Broken Eyes” that Two Gallants sound most at home, where Adam Stephens’ frayed vocals act as a counterweight to the warmer acoustic notes. Likewise, the energy of “Song of Songs” matches his strained voice well. But when paired with the less melodic tracks, he sounds more like a screamo singer who can’t give up on 2004.
And for better or for worse, Stephens and Tyson Vogel have thrown in their lot with that angst, and thematically, The Bloom and the Blight is less of the departure it hopes to be. What we know Two Gallants can produce – the swirling cocktail of harmonica, bluesy guitar and energetic, tightly cinched drums of The Throes – is nothing if not a relatively conservative, down-home take on the same musical genes that inspired (and still inspire) artists like Jack White and the Black Keys. Where Stephens and Vogel try to find their niche is in toeing the line between the emotional dregs of post-hardcore in the new millennium’s new decade and those older blues traditions. And while Dylan surely owns every second anyone will ever try to play a harmonica, that working-man’s church organ added more color and heart to The Throes than any film of distortion. We point to canonically important musicians in these comparisons because we want so badly for younger artists to reach for those peaks with ambition and fire. The Throes had that sneering confidence. The Bloom and the Blight does not.
Artist and audio: www.twogallants.com
Label: ATO Records