Ignore the bloodied bird on the front cover; it's the evocative photo on the inner sleeve that best represents The Throes. There Two Gallants sit in a trashed trolley car, staring morosely at nothing, a pair of modern-day hobos sidetracked on their fruitless journey through a contemporary depression-era America. But forget The Grapes of Wrath; think instead of postwar film noir and the corresponding gritty fiction that laid bare the barrenness at the core of the nation's soul. And like them, Adam Stephens' themes explore not larger societal concerns, but the internal dystopias of his sad, damaged characters stumbling through a cold, uncaring world. "The Throes" itself is a brutal expose of domestic violence, shocking in its vicious, violent details, "Train That Stole My Man" a tragic tale of desertion and suicide, while "My Madonna" charts the downward spiral of alcoholism. Other numbers, though, are a bit less clear-cut. "You Losin' Out," a cover song, may close with the locking out of a cheating woman...or with her murder, while "Crow Jane" features yet another faithless broad who cons a con, who promptly uses her as his excuse for his own criminal ways. "Nothing to You," a morality tale warning of the dangers of placing people on pedestals, contains comic elements, but also a dark stalker edge and a hint of a watery end. Stephens' sharp-as-knives lyrics, tinged with poetic flourishes, weave unforgettable stories, even if much of the action is internal, as the characters struggle with painful pasts, pitiless presents, and foreclosed futures. Relationships should provide support, but instead exert only more pain, making The Throes a dark album relieved only by the beauty of the music. The set swirls around folk and the blues, from the hard rock-tinged "Two Days Short Tomorrow" through the Pogues-like crash and clatter of "Fail Hard to Regain" and on to the swampy slide guitar blues of "Train." The backings are all as evocative as the lyrics themselves.
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This duo's debut hits you with the same sort of visceral combination of acoustic-electric playing and punk bravado that made the Violent Femmes' debut so startling. The lo-fi mono recording leads with a sheen of garage rock and the angularity (though not brevity) of post-punk bands like The Minutemen, but the guitar-drums-harmonica-vocals line-up speaks dearly of blues and folk traditions. Adam Stephen's vocals range from intimate performances echoing the down-and-out sadness of Roky Erickson to stark guitar-driven electricity ala Billy Bragg to Pogues-like punk-waltz shouts. ¶ It's amazing enough to hear all of this pulled together for a debut album, but all the more so given the pair's relatively young years of 21. There's great magic in hearing a sophisticated voice that's yet to limit its range of emotional expression or fall to self-censorship. The tracks occasionally grow long (several extend to seven and eight minutes), but for the most part producer Jeff Saltzman's bottled the band's energy without losing its fizz. 4-1/2 stars, if allowed fractional ratings.