Let’s preface by saying that there might be just a little hometown pride emanating from this review. Who wouldn’t love a band that played their first shows at subway stations around the Mission District in San Francisco, particularly if you’re a local, yourself? Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel have been friends since childhood and the camaraderie is evident in their music, which has come a long way since their days of busking underground—literally.
What the Toll Tells, the follow-up to 2005’s The Throes, has Stephens and Vogel effortlessly weaving folk and punk and blues and stripping them to their essentials, using just vocals, guitar, drums and the occasional harmonica. Leadoff track “Las Cruces Jail” opens with the sound of the wind and whistling, reminiscent of a Spaghetti western. Once the song actually starts, the tone of Western masculinity and the open land is set and Stephens sings a lament about spending a night in jail, like a Sergio Leone film turned into a song.
“Long Summer Day” tells the narrative of living in the South and takes on the tense race relations there. Like labelmate Bright Eyes, the Two Gallants have an interest in the notions of masculinity and the myth of the open West, the boundless terrain if you will. “What the Toll Tells” not only captures the possibilities that comes with exploring uncharted land, it also has the grit and the sense of danger too. All of that in the simplicity of a guitar, drums and vocals.
The songs here have a great deal of intensity as they did on The Throes, as the faster paced songs have been stepped up and the hooks are catchier. The ballads aren’t lacking in intensity either, for that matter. “Some Slender Rest” has the starkness of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and grabs your attention just as the Man in Black did, mainly in the vocals. Adam Stephens’ voice trembles at places but also sounds as though the vocal cords have been soaking in bourbon. The angst and emotion of the lyrics are perfectly articulated through Stephens’ voice. However, it’s not just the Adam Stephens show. Tyson Vogel pounds his skins through “Las Cruces Jail” and “16th St. Dozens” as if he were in a metal band.
The album switches moods with songs, from abrasive rockers to eight-minute ballads afterward. What makes it work is that each song commands the listener’s attention. When a nine and a half minute song like “Threnody in Minor B” can captivate for that long and not wear out its welcome, this band must be doing something right.
Bright Eyes – Fevers and Mirrors
Desaparecidos – Read Music Speak Spanish
Okkervil River – Black Sheep Boy