Back in the days before career advisers, call centres and moronic restart officers – when our youth were allowed to dream – little boys wanted to be spacemen, train drivers and – pushing to one side the infatuation this writers’ younger self had with playing the triangle in Slayer – cowboys. Not jobs as such, but ways of being: amusement for free-ranging free spirits; pursuits that crafted adventure out of the mundane and etched occupations laced with the spirit of exploration. It’s likely that San Fran duo Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel were two such boys. These dudes never wanted to spend their days penned in pen-pushing purgatory. These fellas wanted romance and hurt and laughter and camaraderie; excursions of belief and adventure. Their musical vehicle Two Gallants, their second long player, and their literate, yearning punk folk, never – not for a note, not for a moment – stops dreaming.
‘What The Toll Tells’, the follow-up to the excellent ‘The Throes’ and once again released on their mentor and Bright Eyes chief Conor Oberst’s label Saddle Creek, is a record as wide-eyed as the most boundless, unmapped prairie terrain. It contains the thrills of exploring vast, roaming plains, while infusing its environment with the promise and hope to be located on uncharted, nature-worn, virgin-ventured soil. Yet it’s also a record scented with the grit and grime of spit and sawdust, chronicling tales of danger and doom; chest-beating, liquor-stained murder ballads of surviving the night in the rasp squalour of badlands. They’re songs that share the same spirit as a young, reckless Johnny Cash, or a pre-electric Bob Dylan, odes steeped in the lineage of men such as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Phil Ochs, and, more contemporarily, stark introspective souls like ace rhinestone-tinged hardcore champs Murder City Devils, Against Me!, or Oberst himself. They’re songs bound in faded denim and saddle-smoothed cloth, their breath laced with the sweet smell of whiskey, ready to kill or be killed in seconds. These are songs of adventure.
They’re also songs of wordy, bitter-sweet romance – would you expect anything less of a band named after a James Joyce short story? – and guitarist and singer Adam Stephens’ lyrics are laced with lyrically-wrought Old West allegories that recall long, never-ending nights at plays in the woods with plastic shooters and balsa-wood bows. Consider the record’s stunning opening jaunt, a knee-slapping tale of being bound for a night in chokey that does for ‘Las Cruces Jail’ what the aforementioned Cash did for Folsom Prison. Then there’s the Bible-black blues of the nine-minute registering ‘Waves Of Grain’, a tale that takes in “the foetus of Christ” and a “fistful of scarves”, and beds them on the boozy balladeering of ace Irish pissheads The Pogues the morning after the night before. Unsettling stuff, but an excursion from the broody, bleak bother of everyday life to rival any mind-liberating drug. Sterling stuff from two men only just 21, and worthy promise of a band apparently fit to deliver. A great record. A great work. Two Gallants: just two little boys and their picture-painting musical toys. Yeehaw!