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Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012

Two Gallants: Refreshed, Renewed and Louder

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Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel are the musical equivalent of a buddy movie. Stephens is the reserved, fair-haired poet/guitarist; Vogel’s the hirsute, long-haired wildman hammering the traps like a blacksmith forging Ginsu steel. A decade ago, after college, the childhood chums reconvened and started Two Gallants in San Francisco.

After releasing several intimate folk-blues albums and touring steadily, their full-bore natures left them empty. What was going to be a one-year hiatus soon stretched to more than three, thanks to a series of troubles. Finally, last year, they reunited and wrote their fourth record, The Bloom and the Blight, unveiling a new, louder chapter in the band’s history.

“We’re sort of perfectionists, and when we delve into things, we jump in full and commit fully. That indirectly caught up with us,” Vogel says. “We did it because this music and the fans meant more to us… [but] we were psychically and mentally on our way to our demise. So we kind of pulled back because we wanted to protect this thing that kept us alive for so long.”

They’d gotten off to a quick start. Their 2004 debut, The Throes, earned a fawning Pitchfork review. They jumped to Saddle Creek Records for their next two discs, 2006’s What the Toll Tells and 2007’s self-titled third album. But nearly four years of performing 200-plus shows left them feeling burned out.

“We had made a decision to take a year off and take time to cultivate other interests and perspectives,” Vogel says.

Vogel dealt with the fallout from the end of an eight-year relationship, as both artists released separate debuts in 2010. Vogel released a self-titled album under the name Devotionals, exploring spare, meditative droning folk in concert with violinist Anton Patzner. Stephens’ Joe Chiccarelli-produced debut, We Live On Cliffs, is still folk-inflected, but vibrant and crisp with more guitars and bigger arrangements, frequently sounding less like Americana than indie rock.

The plan was for Two Gallants to return after Stephens’ tour, but a near-fatal accident stalled things further. In late November 2010, the tour van for Stephens’ trio slid out of control on ice in Wyoming and tumbled several times before coming to rest in the median embankment. Stephens cracked his ribs and dislocated his shoulder such that it would be months before he could play guitar or piano again. The whole experience heightened Stephens’ appreciation for what he had.

When Stephens and Vogel returned to Two Gallants, things were different. Though The Bloom and the Blight has its folky moments, overall it’s more clamorous and rocking than anything they’ve released.

“We both talked about how we learned a lot doing other things, focusing on other directions, and it was inherently going to be different,” Vogel says. “We just listen to what comes out and what the songs need. Somehow these songs came out in this very loud way. I don’t think it’s outside what we do, but I do feel they’re different. But then, we’re different—two or three years older with different perspectives and experiences. It’s more a natural progression than a conscious one.”

The near-oxymoron “Winter’s Youth” is emblematic of their evolving approach. The track opens with nearly 70 seconds of pretty strummed acoustic in a singer/songwriter vein before Stephens claps on the heavy distortion and goes garage-psych like the Nuggets box. These twin forces battle not just throughout this song, but the entire album.

“There is this kind of focused dichotomy of raw stuff a little more to the sensitive side, and having that balance in a song is really important,” he says. “You have to try to coddle both sides as appropriate.”

Though Vogel speaks of a “sense of renewal” surrounding the band’s return, at the same time there’s something eternal about Stephens and him making music. It’s a big part of why they sound so good together. They returned so energized by the break that they’ve already written enough material to soon start work on another album.

“It’s kind of like riding a new bike,” Vogel says. “It’s got the same function. Maybe it has some different things going on and is shinier. Most importantly, it goes forward.”

Two Gallants headline a 9 p.m. show at the Cactus Club on Tuesday, Oct. 2, with Papa and The Dead Ships.