Detroit's Soledad Brothers started life as one of those bluesy guitar-and-drum duos that seem to spring up like weeds in local garage-rock scenes, and though they've since added another guitarist and the occasional guest player, Soledad Brothers still cling to the raw, rootsy sound that stripped-down duos do best. The band's new album, The Hardest Walk, traffics in swamp-bound sounds in an urban setting, as on "Downtown Paranoia Blues," which is all tin-shack choodle and uncontrollable jealousy, set in the dank atmosphere of a coldwater flat. Even "Sweet And Easy," the Soledads' stab at a sultry midtempo R&B moaner, doesn't sound too far removed from their cello-aided, dissonant creep-out "Let Me Down," and when they launch into the surging, poppy freak-beat exercise "Good Feeling," lo-fi rust keeps the song from sounding fully positive. The Hardest Walk's key song may be the minute-long avant-noise fragment "White Jazz," which acknowledges the differences between Soledad Brothers and the musical primitivists they borrow from. The Soledads grapple with self-consciousness, and overcome it whenever they slip music past their own heads and into their bones.
On What The Toll Tells, San Francisco guitar-and-drum duo Two Gallants duck some of their debt to blues and garage-rock by making something spooky and art-damaged. It's tempting to trace the echoes of American murder ballads in songs like "Las Cruces Jail," which sticks with the whistling wind for more than a minute before unexpectedly becoming a rave-up, then a dissipated lament, and then a rave-up again. But Two Gallants' frame of reference is more European, with nods to British folk on "The Prodigal Son" and to Spanish romanticism on "16th St. Dozens." Mostly, the duo sounds loose and spontaneous while running through epic, theatrical story-songs like "Threnody In Minor B" and "Age Of Assassins," where the music shifts along with the words, and where the preoccupation with violence and guilt doesn't come off too much like two smart kids playing at being thugs.