It’s fitting that Two Gallants open their new full-length, The Bloom And The Blight, with the song “Halcyon Days.” It’s been five years since the San Francisco-based guitar-and-drums duo released an album, and “Halcyon Days” seems to hint at the long absence. “I said I’d return before long / We live in the light of the dawn,” sings frontman Adam Stephens, his voice as scratched as a pair of antique spectacles. But his eyes-in-in-the-rearview sentiment resonates another way; since their first album, 2004’s The Throes, Two Gallants have trafficked in a rousing, rickety blues-folk explosion that draws equally from vintage roots music and the ragged glory of grunge.
“Halcyon Days” is no different, nor is the rest of The Bloom And The Blight. From the juiced-up jangle of the breezy “Song Of Songs” to the delicate finger-picking of “Sunday Souvenirs,” Stephens and drummer Tyson Vogel imbue the album with the same mix of tender introspection, cracked nostalgia, and full-throttle distortion that Two Gallants made their own in the early ’00s. But unlike two-piece contemporaries such The White Stripes and The Black Keys, Two Gallants have always seemed to have an unstable relationship with their retro influences. That’s both a strength and a curse; on tracks like the bombastic “My Love Won’t Wait,” the bludgeoning riffs and beats approximate the thump of a pounding, palpitating heart—that is, when Stephens isn’t hanging back in hushed passages of sleepy, sweaty exhaustion.
The problem is, the quiet-loud formula gets overused and at times abused, such as on “Winter’s Youth,” an intricate, haunted ballad whose switch to slash-and-screech overload feels forced. Worse, though, it’s beginning to sound less like a tool and more like a crutch. Stephens isn’t always able to capture attention during his more whispery songs; the drone of “Decay” conjures dreamy atmosphere but completely fails to find a hook of any kind. But when Stephens hits his downbeat stride, such as on the piercing, straightforwardly folky “Broken Eyes,” Bloom absolutely blossoms. The good news is Two Gallants’ five-year lapse hasn’t changed the band much. The bad news is that maybe it should have.