Two Gallants are stripping down. To get an idea of the overall tightness of The Bloom and the Blight, the San Francisco-based guitar/drums duo’s first album since 2007’s self-titled, it should be noted that at 33 minutes, it’s an entire 25 minutes shorter than 2006’s What the Toll Tells and only five longer than the 2007 EP The Scenery of Farewell. Additionally, save for that weird submerged organ sound on “Willie” and the piano on “Sunday Souvenirs”, you’ll find little here but Adam Stephens’s vocals, his guitar, and Tyson Vogel’s drums — no cello, violin, double-bass, or anything else that might have found its way into those aforementioned releases or 2004’s The Throes. But despite (or maybe because of) the lack of clutter, this is an album at least on par with any of the Gallants’ prior output.
After the power-chord flail of ironically titled “Halcyon Days”, things quiet down for a couple of minutes with “Song of Songs”. This sort of soft-to-loud dynamic is present throughout the album, whether it’s the perfectly lazy country lament “Broken Eyes” immediately preceding the strum-happy stomp of “Ride Away”, or the spare fingerpicking of “Winter’s Youth” being punctuated by the two-and-half-minute romp “Willie”. While it’s probably true that this is the Gallants’ heaviest album yet, it’s ultimately some weird strain of alt-Americana – which is to say it’s actually not too much of a departure from the band’s traditional sound, even if the punchier corners of the record lead you to believe otherwise.
“Something ain’t quite right with me,” sings Stephens, whose voice still hits like Jack White’s crossed with Conor Oberst’s, in the chorus to “My Love Won’t Wait”, and the lyrics of The Bloom and the Blight usually tie in with that notion. Themes here include unrequited love, lost relationships, mistakes, and the need to escape, all of which have been covered plenty by this band in the past. What’s different is that Stephens is noticeably less emo now, and the chances that you’ll find a line awkward (i.e., a line like The Throes’ “If liquor’s a lover, you know I’m a whore”) are slim to none. No doubt this could vex some diehard fans, who might find Stephens’s past idiosyncratic oversharing charming, but overall it’s a positive that the musical tightness is met with economy in the literature of the album (cue Dubliners reference).
It might be unreasonable to expect a stone-cold classic out of a half-hour album these days, but suffice it to say the Gallants have carved out a showing strong enough to mostly justify the half-decade wait for it. In other words, it’s good to have these guys back.
Essential Tracks: “Halcyon Days”, “Broken Eyes”, and “Ride Away”