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By: Andy Tennille
In 1959, after scraping together a few hundred dollars from his job as a grease monkey at a local gas station, a relatively unknown guitar player from Maryland named John Fahey launched his own record label, Takoma Records, in order to issue his debut album, Blind Joe Death.
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As a result of his deep obsession with early blues music, Fahey tried desperately to have his first LP pressed in shellac in the hope that the antiquated medium would convince collectors of its old-school authenticity. When he couldn't find a pressing plant that could honor his request, Fahey settled on subterfuge, sneaking into Goodwill stores and record shops to stash copies in the used bins alongside his heroes Skip James and Bukka White.
Adam Stephens is well aware of the anachronistic qualities of the music he makes. The gritty blues-punk amalgam he's created with drummer Tyson Vogel in San Francisco-based duo Two Gallants is driven by salt-of-the-earth tales of heartbreak, murder, poverty and betrayal that would fit comfortably in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. But don't think for a second that you'll ever catch Stephens sneaking into the local Salvation Army with an armful of LPs to slip in next to Blind Boy Fuller.
"I would never be so audacious as to go to a store and slip them in the sleeves of a Skip James record like John Fahey did," Stephens says with a laugh. "To me, it's hard to live and breathe the music like those old blues musicians did 'cause our times are completely different. A lot of my songs are about things that I never lived nor ever will live, mostly because the world we live in is extremely superficial compared to the world a lot of those old guys grew up in. I'd never want to put our music or myself in any kind of category or place near theirs, but the influence is definitely there in a major way. I don't at all deny that the music we're playing references music that preceded us."
It's that humble reverence for their musical predecessors, coupled with their ballsy willingness to reinterpret music far beyond their years, that make Two Gallants one of the most intriguing groups to come down the highly derivative indie-rock pipeline in the past few years.
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On Two Gallants, the duo's most recent studio effort released on Saddle Creek in September, Stephens and Vogel don't stray too far from the successful blueprint they laid out on 2004's The Throes and last year's What the Toll Tells. Many of the songs deal with love, lost or absent, but there is also an overarching tone of anger – at times mournful ("Trembling of the Rose," "My Baby's Gone") but also vindictive ("The Hand That Held Me Down," "Reflections of the Marionette," "Despite What You've Been Told"). On the surface, the songs appear to be barbed missives directed at a former lover, so much so that many critics have labeled the album a "break-up record." But much like the bluesmen he reveres, the subject matter of Stephens' lyrics shouldn't be taken at face value.
"Yeah, there's definitely anger in some of those songs, mostly directed at a third-person who's not exactly disclosed. If one pays attention, there's definitely a repeated theme of the ending of some sort of relationship in a way," Stephens says. "But, it's rare that I write a song that is directly related to anything going on with me personally. A lot of people say the blues were about an underlying current of racial oppression that couldn't really be voiced overtly, so the first blues musicians wrote about it through other forms, mostly about struggles between a man and a woman. Of course, there are varying degrees of yourself in every song; I think that's kind of inescapable. But I like taking a little less direct approach to my songwriting."
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