[13 September 2012]
As an Americana-infused grunge duo with equal parts East Coast Piedmont Blues guitar underpinnings and a dyed in the wool punk rock aesthetic, San Francisco’s Two Gallants spent the better part of a decade carving out a particularly unique niche amongst indie rock acts. Releasing a steady stream of critically heralded if ultimately underappreciated albums in the aughts, culminating in their most fully realized and well-executed 2007 self-titled release, the group mined territory their less traditional music-obsessed peers mostly chose to ignore. They also provided Grade A blogosphere material on a couple of occasions. But at the close of the decade, Adam Stephens (guitar/vocals) and Tyson Vogel (drums) appeared primed for a break. And who can blame them? It’s hard being a duo. Just ask Wham! With this in mind, both released quietly reflective folk-based solo albums in 2010, Stephens’ We Live on Cliffs and Vogel under the pseudonym Devotionals. In 2012, the group has returned with The Bloom and the Blight, their first for the ATO imprint and a comeback record of sorts.
For this go round, the Gallants called upon the services of producer extraordinaire John Congelton (St. Vincent, the Walkmen). Congelton succeeds in bringing a textural balance to the near constant shifts in dynamic between heavy and soft instrumentation, a hallmark of the group’s sound. He also seems to have encouraged a spirit of experimentation. This is manifest in both the different instruments used in spots and the harder edge to the music itself.
Songs on The Bloom and the Blight tend towards the highly emotive, an element that stands consistently at the forefront, particularly in the case of Adam Stephens’ singing. However, occasionally the frontman’s vocal fervor works against him, as on “Halcyon Days”, the album opener where an overreaching chorus mars an otherwise headbanger of a tune. All is forgiven, though, on “Song of Songs”, wherein a pretty vocal melody syncs up masterfully with Stephens’ John Fahey style fingerpicking.
Side B begins with “Decay”, which is nothing short of a revelation, even more so considering it’s the first Tyson Vogel-penned track to grace a Two Gallants album. The ethereal acoustic melody and poignant existential lyrics can be seen as a natural extension of Vogel’s work in Devotionals. The pair’s vocals blend effortlessly and offer an impressive contrast to the more wheels off tracks. It’s the best song on the album, maybe the best song on any Two Gallants album.
For his part, Stephens has consistently shown himself to be not only a gifted guitarist but an able storyteller as well, borrowing liberally from pre-war Mississippi blues numbers and Old West murder ballads. On “Willie”, the song most beholden to the Two Gallants backcatalog, the group returns to the roots well for inspiration. Utilizing a barroom-like country refrain, Stephens opines, “Willie, sweet Willie, where did you go, riding around the town on a drunken spree / If I did you wrong won’t you let me know, If I did you good have a drink on me.” But that euphonic old-timey vibe is interrupted with a questionable bit of organ - questionable because it sounds like it might be coming straight out of an ice cream truck speaker on the hottest day of the summer.
If not their finest hour, The Bloom and the Blight is a natural evolution in the Gallants catalog. This is the group at their most adventurous, expanding their musical horizons and going off script at times in order to keep things from getting redundant. That’s a logical and laudable move when you have been playing together as long as Stephens and Vogel have. And if this album is any indication, the path ahead offers plenty more bloom than it does blight.