here was a brief moment when the term “alt-country” revealed something about a band. That tricky little hyphen was a road sign of sorts. It pointed a listener both forward and backward, announcing the melding of formerly distinct genres into something new and, okay I’ll say it, exciting.
The most prominent example, Uncle Tupelo, provided their fans with an education in the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, John Prine, Doug Sahm and others. This was a good thing, if for no other reason than it demonstrated the band’s knowledge of where it had been and what kind of musical baggage (read: influences) it dragged around with it. In looking forward, that would be the “alt” part of the equation, that little hyphen indicated an entirely new idea of where rock and country music could go in building on those influences.
With increasing frequency the term “alt-country” has now become a definition for those country artists not embraced by the hit driven, glossy pin-up version of country that Nashville currently sells with so much success. Really, the “alt” now means: where does it belong?
So what does “alt-country” mean to today’s men and women who are more likely to have been influenced by the original purveyors of the “alt” label say Uncle Tupelo, The Jayhawks, or The Palace Brothers, than they are to know and carry the burden of the traditional Americana music that those bands held so dear.
While there are far worse places for a band to start with than Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne or The Bottle Rockets, it’s refreshing (and encouraging) to find that the two young men who compromise Two Gallants are well aware that Neil Young sang “Southern Man” long before getting on stage with Pearl Jam to tear through “Rockin’ In The Free World.”
Emerging from a resurgent country-rock scene in the San Francisco Bay Area that’s too young to remember the Olde Joe Clarks, The Buckets or Richard Buckner’s The Doubters; Two Gallants first album The Throes is an excellent working definition of what “alt-country” can mean to a new generation of singer songwriters: respectful of tradition but constantly striving for something completely original.
The remarkable thing about The Throes is its ability to feel dated and new at the same time. Each song carries a built in tension fueled by the music’s conscious pull away from the traditional elements they are based on. I’m not talking about the use of craftily employed electronics or looped effects butting against acoustic instrumentation. The Throes is far more subtle than that, Two Gallants too literate and clever.
At its best The Throes sounds like an unearthed relic of a different time that somehow manages to fit into the here and now. “Fail Hard To Regain” starts out with a harmonic intro that would sound completely at home on a T-bone Burnett movie soundtrack before becoming a pounding drumbeat and distortion laced guitar jig that echoes the punch of cow punk bands like Rank And File and The Long Ryders. Singer Adam Stephens has a penchant for antiquated language (he likes “ye” and “twas” a bit much) but still manages to make it work to his favor. His songs are very much part of the storyteller tradition that reaches back to western murder ballads and the outlaw style of Merle Haggard.
Many of the songs on The Throes are simply Stephens’s voice, guitar and harmonica pared with Tyson Vogel’s drumming. It’s a simple formula that works on “You Losin’ Out”, “Two Days Short”, and “Nothing To You” by virtue of the passion with which they are played. Stephens’s voice is constantly pushed towards a larynx damaging growl while Vogel’s drumming is all fills and rolls as he dances in and out of his band mate’s guitar work.
The only drawback on The Throes is the length of some of its songs. While “Crow Jane” at over eight minutes long is surprisingly compact due to its heartrending break up theme, there are four other songs here that clock in at seven minutes or more that feel a bit indulgent. But that’s a minor complaint for such an impressive debut. Two Gallants’ The Throes singlehandedly provides some hope that “alt-country” may yet have some kick left in it.
Reviewed by: Peter Funk
Reviewed on: 2005-02-02