Reviews

What the Toll Tells

Author: Brian Howe
03/27/2006 | Pitchforkmedia.com | www.pitchforkmedia.com | Album Review
Nostalgic indie bands treat history like a playground, and one need not convey an understanding of the monkey bars' provenance in order to swing on them. Traditional voices are pared down to sound bites. Organic musical systems harden into petrified tropes. Whole historical epochs resurface as hermetic genre exercises. Is there anything insidious about this flattened view of history? Are some historical moments still too emotionally raw and politically relevant to be casually appropriated, and where do we draw the line? Two Gallants beg these and other questions on their sophomore LP.

What the Toll Tells appropriates Southern trad-Americana, from bitterly class-conscious folk to vibrantly violent outlaw country, and runs it through an emo-punk filter. The long compositions are modernized with the sort of croaky vocals and spiky guitars familiar from Bright Eyes and Cursive. The album opens with its strongest track, "Las Cruces Jail". Lonesome whistles set the scene for this yowling cow-punk stomper. Adam Stephens locates a strong vocal melody for his jailhouse lament, as he does on the acoustic dirge "Steady Rollin'". But the quixotic charm wears thin as "Some Slender Rest" dips into lugubrious emo-folk, and the remainder of the album's murdered wives, enraged sheriffs, and luckless roustabouts pile up cartoonishly.

We've become anesthetized to morally murkier areas of rose-tinted Southern clichés, the same way that many of us can uneasily suspend judgment when listening to certain hip-hop music. But such rap is always, to some degree, responding to lived or shared experience. Two Gallants are borrowing otherness, which raises the stakes significantly. The nagging discomfort we're so good at ignoring when we listen to music that handles history like costume jewelry is thrown into stark relief by "Long Summer Day", a reworking of Moses "Clear Water" Platt's scathing work song (Platt's original is included on Deep River of Song: Black Texicans, which collects Alan Lomax's 1930s field-recordings of African-American music on the Texas frontier).

I want to believe that Two Gallants had good intentions in covering this song. But intention is fleeting; if it ever becomes known to the public, it's quickly dispatched to the mists of time. Only the artifact remains. And this artifact scans to me as deeply insensitive and offensive. Spin.com brushed it off as an account of racism; occasional Pitchfork contributor Jonathan Zwickel hailed it as "nothing short of revelatory" in New Times. But what value is there in an account of racism from people who've never stared down its barrel? What could it possibly reveal? If these myopic responses reveal anything, it's that the topic is much easier to gloss over than to actually discuss. Such an inflammatory project needs a complex intellectual purpose to make it more than a cheap provocation. This rigor doesn't come through in the cover, and when a Drowned in Sound interviewer pressed Stephens on the topic of "Long Summer Day", he equivocated. "I don't think it comes as something strategic," he said, and the interviewer demurred, because he was "in no mood" to really broach the topic.

In the same interview, Two Gallants repeatedly complain about critics not "getting them." But a persistent failure of interpretation usually signals an initial failure of expression. The critic's job isn't to explore what an artist was trying to do, but what they've actually done. And this is it: A couple of white, twentysomething San Franciscans singing, "the summer day makes a nigga feel crazy," a line destined to be belted out by carfulls of indie kids at the top of their ironic lungs. Is this healing? You decide.
What the Toll Tells

What the Toll Tells

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