TWO GALLANTS with the BROWN HORNETS at the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina), Tuesday (May 2). $9. 416-763-9139. Rating: NNNNN
There's literary allusion, and then there's literal allusion, and in the fickle world of musical hype-mongering it's amazing how much weight those two letters of difference can carry.
Consider roughneck San Fran duo the Two Gallants. When the pair released their blues-scarred heartland rock debut, The Throes (Alive), back in 04, buzz started building about the relatively unknown combo who'd swiped their name from a James Joyce story and penned painstakingly detailed narratives about brutalizing relationships, drunken self-destruction and cold-blooded killings. At the time, the album scored a dazzling 8.5/10 and gushing hyperbole from the notoriously cranky online critics at Pitchforkmedia.com.
Barely two years later, the Gallants' blood-soaked, amped-up follow-up, What The Toll Tells (Saddle Creek), seems to be stirring up somewhat confused eddies of controversy. The same fusion of blues and country influences with a ragged punk assault that won them accolades has been (unfairly) slammed as "archaic" appropriation, and their raw first-person storytelling is raising hackles. They've even dropped nearly 40 per cent in former cheerleader Pitchfork's esteem, clocking in at a pitiful 4.8/10.
The issues stem from one particular track on What The Toll Tells, a devastating blues-rock croaker called Long Summer Day that recounts the murder of a black man from his son's perspective. Inspired by a trad tune by Moses "Clear Water" Pratt, the song's use of the N-word, combined with the fact that pasty-white vocalist/guitarist Adam Stephens sings from an African-American perspective, has pissed off more than a few people.
"The point is that the story is coming from a different place and time, and it's important to have different people offer different critiques of it," explains Stephens's partner in musical crime, drummer Tyson Vogel.
"A very big proactive result of that song is to make people somewhat uncomfortable," Vogel continues, clearing his throat. "There are certain times when it's more appropriate to play it, and others when we're nervous that people will only hear the N-word and assume we're some white supremacist band. The thing that has thrown us is how much the feedback has taken the form of personal attacks against us. We sometimes worry about playing it live for fear that people will threaten us physically."
Although it's easy to understand why some might find it questionable for a couple of Bay Area Caucasian 20-somethings to adopt a black voice and sonic signifiers that call to mind Delta blues and slave spirituals, Long Summer Day is a chilling look at an atrocious chapter in American history framed in a song that sticks with you long after it's over.
It fits quite neatly into the Two Gallants' songwriting approach of merging elements of their personal experience with archetypes that call to mind long-gone times and places. Steady Rollin', for example, is a classic ne'er-do-well-drifter tale firmly rooted in contemporary Frisco geography, while the epic Waves Of Grain borrows from America The Beautiful to implicitly condemn current U.S. government policy.
Vogel claims his and Stephens's appreciation of traditional and country music - he cites Blind Willie Johnson as the first blues artist who really "hit home" - was a natural evolution from the Seattle grunge and hardcore music both guys grew up with.
"There's such an amazing beauty and honesty in early country blues and country music. The appeal is that the stripped-down emotion really carries those songs, so they don't have to be so sonically over the top.
"That music was made so people could relax and have a bit of fun in hard times, so it's really no different than the dirty underground punk shows I'd go to when I was 16, where dirty street kids whose lives were harsh could play music and be part of a community."