A monument stands at the center of What the Toll Tells, Two Gallants' sophomore album, and like any dramatic reminder of a dark era passed, it inspires some serious introspection. At almost 10 minutes in length, "Threnody" is exactly what its title suggests, a poetic song of lament -- specifically, a tale of plague set in some godforsaken outpost during some lost moment in history. Coursing simply over drums, guitar, cello, and voice, it's as ragged and dire as a freshly dug grave. Not exactly warm and fuzzy stuff, but a great indication of what Two Gallants -- who are neck and neck with the Decemberists for the "Most Literate Band" title -- are all about.
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But don't be mistaken: They're not all about slow-plucked dirges. And even when they are, as in the sister track to "Threnody," the venomous, flag-trampling "Waves of Grain," they're riveting. Look out for the punk-mariachi of "16th St. Dozens" and the waltzy swagger of "The Prodigal Son," both outside the punk/folk/blues terrain that guitarist/vocalist Adam Stephens and drummer Tyson Vogel explored with their previous work. Better yet, ride high into "Las Cruces Jail," the rollicking album opener that finds a nervous desperado giving his last words before the gallows. Or try on "Long Summer Day," perhaps the Gallants' boldest work. Told from the perspective of an indentured slave in the antebellum South, it's nothing short of revelatory. Yes, it's all just drums, guitar, and occasional harmonica. Yes, Stephens, like Dylan, has a wiry voice that's not easy to love, but its power is just as hard to deny. Vogel steps up here as well, drumming in a unique style that's thunderous even when merely drizzling. What the Toll Tells is monumental, and -- though it's early to make predictions -- will stand as one of 2006's best albums.