2012, ATO Records
Like most thirtysomethings married and trying to survive the not-quite-yet-a-double-dip recession, I don’t shell out for records unless I have a really, really good reason. Disposable income? [Cue Kanye and Jay-Z laughing meme.]
When an under-appreciated band with volatile energy and some of the best folksy-cum-Americana lyrics since Grant-Lee Phillips decides that five years of almost incessant touring and solo projects is enough, I decide we can go without meat for a week. (Not really, but you get the idea.)
A lot has changed in the scene since the Gallants left us wanting more after 2007’s self-titled swan song from Saddle Creek Records. In fact, after devouring the first single ‘My Love Won’t Wait’ approximately 23980509274580 times over the past three weeks, my first cogent thought about the darker, heavier and realized turn 2GS took was that the gauntlet has been thrown down at the feet of The Black Keys. Really, the trajectory of both duos can be traced alongside one another: both launched around the same time (Keys, ’02; Gallants, ’04), both take deep from the well of American heritage (the bluesy garage band sensibilities of the Midwest for one; the mythic past and present American Southwest, Wild West and folk tradition the other), both can flat throw it down. This is not to say the Keys and Gallants are similar in tone, they’re different enough through the speakers, but that they are certainly cut from the same cloth in the best possible way.
Where Two Gallants left us last, they were working with a tight and technically-proficient self-titled record. While it was a solid effort, it was, to me, missing the guttural and kinetic force of their previous two records: their promising, if not dirge-y, debut The Throes released on Alive and their first Saddle Creek release, What the Toll Tells, a furious combination of leftovers from their first work along with more developed work that comes with maturing as a musical unit from first to second record.
The Bloom and the Blight is a most apt choice for album title: the work swings, sometimes wildly, between their hallmark folk-rock (pardon the term) and literarily-pleasing lyrics and their new-found outright ferocity as a rock-and-roll duo. The Throes teased this kind of eruption, some of it works on What the Toll Tells, (‘Long Summer Day’ just crushes everything around it, with its explicit nod to Charley Patton’s original, ‘Las Cruces Jail’ leads off the record and comes out swinging) and some of it doesn’t (with all due respect, ’16th Street Dozens’ gets away from the two with the horn breakdowns and the punk timing, ‘Age of Assassins’ is a lengthy dirge with distortion that probably should have stayed acoustic.) The last record, though pleasing enough, is more bloom than blight.
‘Halcyon Days’ leads off with a menacing tone (lyrically and musically) set by Adam Stephens’ penchant for haunting hooks and tight, pounding drums from Tyson Vogel. Clearly, the two feed off each other and have a lot of miles on them. They journey through the opening track together with tempo shifts, time signature changes and the loud-quiet-loud song structure one with a sense of college rock history can’t help but link to Pixies. That followed by ‘Song of Songs’, a [all apologies] bloomer of a folky tune which picks up in speed and intensity while remaining relatively light-hearted.
Bloom turns to blight with ‘My Love Won’t Wait’, a bitter, seemingly cathartic single with as much radio sensibility as an angsty, dour and forlorn elegy for the broken-hearted could possibly have. The sense of desperation and doom (“’cause something ain’t quite right with me/can’t seem to let you be/my love won’t wait; so don’t you fret, don’t you fear/I’ll whisper in your ear/’there’s no escape’) is palpable from voice to guitar (it comes off as though, and I cannot be certain, it were in drop-D, and has faint echoes to this listener of Starflyer 59 at Jason Martin’s angstiest; that is to say, the gold record) and drums. The chaos and haunting piano outro then shifts hard into a little acoustic folk ditty, ‘Broken Eyes’, which then shifts back to the blight of ‘Ride Away’, which has a sound and evocative imagery stemming directly from Toll.
‘Decay’ sounds like it could have been in with the Saddle Creek-era material, lush production with strings and a cyclical hook. ‘Winter’s Youth’ is another strong track in which the duo straddles the divide between folk and an aggressive audio assault. The production quality is heard in these tracks in particular, where the sound is fuller in scope without being overwrought and maintaining a live-ish quality which explores the studio space in the speakers. The record is solid in a stereo, and sounds great in decent headphones. The Bloom and the Blight rounds out with two faster tracks, the upbeat ‘Willie’ and the very live-feeling and comfortable-with-having-our-limitations-exposed ‘Cradle Pyre’ (which, oddly enough, is intended as a compliment), and the hushed, yet robust ‘Sunday Souvenirs’, featuring the requisite acoustic guitar, welcoming piano and adding tinges of electronic snare underneath Vogel’s bellowing acoustic drum, the record with the dying of a final sustained piano key.
What impresses about 2GS and this release relative to their catalog thus far is that they stay close to their roots–folk and dark Americana–while always being comfortable within their own skin as children of the 90s. They are neither rock and roll nor folk, but a truly syncretic outfit: creating something that is both contemporary and timeless, traditional and unorthodox. They stay close to the source material while also progressing as musicians and a cohesive unit. On the other hand, The Black Keys have morphed some from their bluesy/garage roots–in fairness, they stayed in that wheelhouse for quite some time–into an act at home with soul and, most recently, arena rock, and have done so in the best possible way.
Regardless, the fact is that the Gallants have submitted for our consideration a record that manages to be explicitly bitter without being depressing, forward-thinking without abandoning that which brought them thus far. With any hope at all, they won’t make us wait five years for whatever comes next.
I first was exposed to these two back in 2005 in an old church basement on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, when they opened for Damien Jurado (who also unleashed a monster of a record earlier this year.) At that point, my good friend Andy and I had no idea what they were doing, and I wondered if they had any idea, either. The opening of their set was, frankly, weak and derivative. Then Stephens pulled out his hollow-bodied Gretsch and they let fly, stunning the sparse crowd.
What blossomed there and in The Throes has come to full bloom now, seven years and three records later. A most talented twosome has again delivered the goods. Now, only if I could get up to St. Louis to see them again later this month.
Hey, a family’s gotta eat.