Irony is important. It can be a very useful litmus test for figuring out a person’s character. I’ve never met Adam Stephens (lead vocals, guitar) and Tyson Vogel (drums, vocals) of Two Gallants, but after repeat listens to What the Toll Tells and their sloppy yet acclaimed 2004 debut, The Throes, I get the feeling that irony isn’t their strong suit. The James Joyce-referencing band name, the laughably noir album art on each of their releases, the lyrical style that makes Colin Meloy seem down to earth: If these dudes were a diet, it would be strictly sodium-free. What I mean is, they take themselves really seriously.
As David Dondero coined it, “the skinny-indie-white-boy blues” is what Two Gallants try to deliver, and at times these Bay Areabased boyhood chums get it right. Frontman Stephens is all rabid and jangly, both in his guitar work and vocals (think Cat Stevens after downing a gravel smoothie). Vogel is a solid drummer; nothing spectacular, but he nails the rah-rah, Against Me! factor with his straightforward skins and backing vocals, which lift the record’s better songs. The two pride themselves on a reluctance toward the standard verse-chorus-verse structure, and it gives their songs a very driven, linear feel when taken individually. Unfortunately, as a whole, this release suffers from repetition.
“Two Gallants” is one of fifteen short stories in Joyce’s “Dubliners.” The story was not included in the original printing of the book; it was added later as a metaphorical “screw you” to Dublin, whose society Joyce felt had betrayed him and was stuck in an adolescent holding pattern. The story’s two gallants are a petty con team that takes advantage of a young maid and robs her of a gold coin, but the main focus of the tale is one of the men’s aimless stroll through town: the social-meandering that Joyce despised. I doubt that Stephens and Vogel are calling themselves con artists or immature drifters, but rather use the name because, well, it’s a cool name (and/or because it shows how versed they are).
“Las Cruces Jail” leads off the band’s Saddle Creek debut with so much promise that it ends up serving as the unfortunate highlight of the letdown that most of the following songs turn out to be. Starting with a distant whistling and the sound of swirling wind, the song gets horsewhipped into a dirt-floor stomping aesthetic that ebbs and flows to the end. The third track, “Some Slender Rest,” also begins well enough, but after six minutes the off-tune whining begins in earnest. Unlike Jim Varney’s Ernest, however, the song never comes back from camp. “The Prodigal Son” and “Threnody In Minor B” are both satisfying and well written, the former maybe a bit worn after Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy (a point Stephens dutifully acknowledges with, “I’m well known in story/ famous in song/ the black sheep, the blemish/ the one who went wrong”).
The biggest “Are these guys kidding?” moment comes with their semi-cover of Moses “Clear Rock” Platt’s work song, “Long Summer Day.” Covering African-American music has been a staple amongst white folkies from Woody on up. But the treatment of this song comes off as pretentious, presumptuous and damn near audacious. “A summer day make a white man lazy/ He sits on his porch killing time/ But a summer day makes a nigger feel crazy/ Might make me do something out of line.”
Gee fellas, how quaint. Modern-day blackface minstrelsy this is not, but a little more tact would be nice. Call me crazy, but busking on the streets of San Francisco and touring through Europe (that’s the “world weariness” Saddle Creek emphasizes) doesn’t give them quite the stature to liberally drop the N-bomb and sing a song from the perspective of a man as hardscrabble as Platt. (Spending much of his time toiling on prison farms in Texas, Platt’s first recordings surfaced when Alan Lomax visited him in the clink.)
There are obvious talents at work here, and hopefully the Gallants will settle down and get it right eventually. But this album is so ripe with hubristic self-regard and musical monotony that most of its worth gets crossed out.