By Dennis Cook
A whistling crimson wind crawls under your door, dusty with the gravitas of Leadbelly, Sam Peckinpah, and Son House. Then the full roar of it pounds you, an emotional hail of stinging, undisguised pain that’s simultaneously frightening and cleansing. Only two records and a handful of singles in, Two Gallants stride with old legs into a young man’s game.
The San Francisco duo combines singer-guitarist-lyricist Adam Stephens' eviscerating barrages with Tyson Vogel's wild-handed percussion for something that’s equal measures Folkways archival discovery and contemporary folk, bursting with chiming guitars and punk muscle. It can’t easily be placed in time. There’s a bard’s folklore at work here, full of sure, keenly observed wisdom earned with calloused hands and bruised souls.
Stephens' voice is a fractured descendent of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, Frank Black, and Blind Willie Johnson – haunted by some deep wound like he killed someone in an earlier life or some monstrous Civil War slaughter, limbs and loved ones sawed away with sobering brutality. On “Steady Rollin” he sings, “If you’ve got a throat, I’ve got a knife.” Everywhere death runs close at their heels, mortality and the fragility of human existence front-and-center in their music.
When a spot of genuine tenderness emerges as on “Some Slender Rest” and “Threnody,” it’s in the form of plaintive longing for days past, a hunger to be away from the here-and-now. Yet, they seem all too aware that there’s no oasis in bygone times. Nostalgia is at best a cold comfort. “Threnody” conjures the ghosts of Lal Waterson and Phil Ochs and makes them slow dance with Virginia Woolf, who breathes water and regret all over the two wise folk demigods.
Their name, taken from James Joyce’s Dubliners, suggests adventure, grand purpose, a well-mannered gentility that’s strikingly different from our modern lives mired in endless distraction and self-indulgent navel-gazing. The songs seem to rise from some long-lost 19th Century hymnal, the smell of brimstone and ash filtering up from lines like “Who’s to blame when all are guilty?” The overall tone is enlightened self-loathing mingled with an equal disdain for the rest of the sinners and slobs mucking up human existence. It’s a mature perspective far beyond their physical age (both Vogel and Stephens are in their early 20s) that’s likely to inspire comparisons to young Bob Dylan. While their first album didn’t really warrant the nod, this sophomore release closes with two tracks that eerily evoke “Desolation Row” and the sparse truth telling of John Wesley Harding. “Age of Assassins” and “Waves of Grain” are lengthy dissertations on the pain of living, pumped by hearts fed on hard-tack and bitter truths, the marrow of life sucked deep and swallowed without salt.
What might at first seem funereal is in fact a spirit-swelling affirmation. As we lie awake under the bellicose moon swinging around our Earth, we need people like Two Gallants to face reality without flinching. These are only happy days if you’re willing to be numbed-out and entertained day and night like the many stimulus junkies that shout from every television and radio. These GOOD friends of the devil understand the darkness on the horizon. They see how it mirrors the final days of other empires that thought they would reign for a thousand years. It’s an antediluvian wisdom that knows we’re not far from another cleansing flood. In the meantime, they’ve given us something solid to hold onto while the waters rise.
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