Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel, who make up San Francisco indie-folk act Two Gallants, have never cared much for subtlety. For all the finger-picked guitar and lilting riffs, the band’s songs often dive headlong into a deep well of emotions that are always heartfelt but rarely warm and fuzzy.
With Two Gallants, their second release of 2007 after their EP The Scenery of Farewell, the band doesn’t stray very far from their established sound. The songs are spare and visceral. Stephens’ guitar lays down the melody nicely, and Vogel’s drums thud along energetically though much of the album. To call this formulaic, though, is not to say that it is bad or dull. The formula works in spots here. “The Deader” and “Miss Meri” start the album off with solid mid-tempo rock. Stephens’ intricate guitar work is at its finest here, and Vogel forgets nuance in his percussion in favor of immediate emotion. Similarly, songs like “Reflections of the Marionette” show the duo cranking up the energy after a quiet ballad, rather than letting the album slip into a slow-motion rut.
For the most part, Two Gallants is steady, and fans of the band won’t find any surprised here, except that this album finds the two gelling as a band more than on any of their other releases. However, it does sound like they, in getting better as a band, have also grown comfortable in their sound. There is very little variation to be found on Two Gallants, and with the bulk of the songs running close to or over five minutes, the sameness of everything starts to sand down the album’s rough edges. This is particularly evident in the quieter material, as once you get to “Ribbons Round My Tongue”, it sounds awfully similar to “Trembling of the Rose” that comes a few tracks earlier. And “Fly Low Carrion Crow”, coming so late in a record of overly long songs, sounds deflated rather than gentle.
Two Gallants seems to suggest that perhaps the band could use some subtlety after all. In particular, Stephens’ singing could stand to be toned down. His voice is solid, but he shows no range with it, no sense of how to tame it. Rather than try his hand at restraint, Stephens’ voice is all plaintiff emoting, as if he can’t rely on the words themselves to relay the emotion. Even on a ballad like “Trembling of the Rose”, his voice comes in loud and high in the mix, drowning out his excellent folk guitar in the background. By keeping his voice strained over the entirety of the record, Stephens eventually sweats all the feeling out of his songs, making them seem more melodramatic than earnest.
And the lyrics do little to quell the sad bastard, histrionics of Two Gallants. Stephens’ images are sledgehammer subtle, always painting his narrator as either mortally betrayed or anti-heroic in a reductive, over-romanticized way. “Did you kiss the hand that held me down?” he asks at one point, but he doesn’t sound held down. Nothing seems to be pressing on his neck as he sings the line at the top of his lungs. In other spots on the album, he refers to “the steel trap of your thighs”, lips and wine are always blood red, and any break up leaves the narrator not just hurt, but dead. Sometimes, Stephens gets so lost in his images, he renders them meaningless. “When I unveiled my weakness on your rodeo of tears,” he sings early on in the record, setting up an album full of confessions that are really anything but, so that when we do get to a moment that seems earnest, its rendered unbelievable by Two Gallants track record of sappy melodrama.
If you can get past the lyrics, the album is a decent listen. The songs are solidly composed, catchy, and recover from some of their sameness with their over-the-top energy. Two Gallants sound like a band that have found their sound, but it is a sound that could be pushed. They have the ability to capture raw emotion, but the next step is to realize that raw emotion alone, especially the self-pitying variety, cannot shoulder the weight of an entire album. Two Gallants can keep yelling, and we’ll probably hear them. That doesn’t mean we’ll be listening, though.