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Two Gallants | What the Toll Tells (Saddle Creek)

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The people they met on tour and while playing in more intimate settings seem to have offered them a whole host of stories to tell, because their second full-length release is nothing but stories—that, and a hefty dose of cowboy sass.

Saddle Creek’s newest member has already generated quite the buzz, and one listen to this album fulfills every expectation. With the addition of Two Gallants, the label that formerly sustained itself on a strict diet of indie rock has added a jolt of country to its regimen, and What the Toll Tells introduces a fine, spicy kick, indeed. Three parts country/blues and two parts punk, this album evokes the sandswept landscapes of the rolling West through an impressive array of rollicking honkytonks and tender elegies. As if the music itself wasn’t compelling enough, Two Gallants backs up their guitars with some of the most sharp-tongued storytelling Saddle Creek has ever seen.

The storytellers are Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel, two childhood friends from San Francisco who began collaborating at age 12 and in 2002 decided to take their show on the road. They played house parties, began touring, and released their debut album in 2004 on Alive Records. The people they met on tour and while playing in more intimate settings seem to have offered them a whole host of stories to tell, because their second full-length release is nothing but stories—that, and a hefty dose of cowboy sass.

Never mind that both gentlemen are barely of drinking age, and that neither apparently believes in the use of a bass guitar. That’s right, the album is straight guitar and drums thumping beneath their whiskey-laden vocals, and it’s clear that with lyrics like this, these boys were hitting the bottle much earlier than the law deems fit. But their age belies their maturity, with storytelling so dead-on that at first listen you’d swear you were listening to the likes of Johnny Cash. Or, at the very least, Johnny Cash with a dash of punk rock thrown in.

The album totals nine songs, all of which oscillate in mood from rowdy to weepy. Considering that some of these tracks clock in at eight or nine minutes long, the fluctuation keeps things interesting. That kind of time frame also allows for their storytelling to flourish, which it does both poignantly and piquantly. These boys have a way of digging into someone else’s skin, as on “Las Cruces Jail,” where they personify a young man on death row. Stephens sings, “That’s twenty-one fell by my gun/With bullets in their brains/Just need one more to match my age/Then I’ll count my killin’ done”—lines that explode with skin-puckering candor. Each song is like a diary entry, channeled from a chorus of unfortunate souls who have sanctioned Stephens as their medium.

Now, it’s clear that Stephens and Vogel have never shot their wives or spent time as death-row inmates, but Tolkien probably didn’t have a hobbit village in his backyard either. Great storytelling comes from great imagination, and, lucky for us, Two Gallants pairs theirs with a stunning backdrop of evocative country punk to bring us right into the tumbleweed-strewn center of things.


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