Retribution Gospel Choir: 2

Alan Sparhawk's rock band makes a record just as sharp, funny, moving and self-lacerating as all of his best work with Low.

Retribution Gospel Choir


US Release Date: 2010-01-26
UK Release Date: Import
Artist Website

The last time I reviewed the Retribution Gospel Choir, I said "one senses we’ll need to wait until next time, when the Retribution Gospel Choir hopefully ditches the Low covers, for them to really come into their own." It's the kind of idiot pronouncement critics are prone to, but thankfully for listeners (and my pride), that time I was right. As good as Retribution Gospel Choir was (and despite my slight misgivings at the time, it warrants the 7 that I gave it), 2 is a leap forward for the band, a record that takes everything good about their music and amplifies it even as these songs explore parts of the Retribution Gospel Choir's sound that the debut left untouched. The band had already justified its existence; Low fans naturally took an interest, but anyone who likes harsh, squalling garage rock could find something to keep them happy. On 2, though, the Retribution Gospel Choir confidently slips out of the realm of the side project. No disrespect to Mark Kozelek and his fine label Caldo Verde, but you can hear why Sub Pop would be interested in releasing this record.

2 is just as noisy and bracing as the debut, but from the time the first chorus of "Hide It Away" hits, it's clear that this album is also fuller, louder and more anthemic. Where the cover of Retribution Gospel Choir was a stark black and white image of a herd of sheep, heads down, 2 is emblazoned with an almost lush colour picture of a broken ice field. Retribution Gospel Choir made a virtue of the ragged informality of its rants and shaggy dog stories, matching the bleakness of its art with the likes of "Destroyer" and "Easy Pray", but here it seems like Alan Sparhawk has decided that the best way to get people to listen is to break them up, make them shake their hips and bang their heads. That's right, after years of Low, Alan Sparhawk has gone ahead and made his classic rock album.... and it's fantastic.

"Hide It Away" and the crashing "Your Bird" make for a potent opening one-two punch, but it's not until "Poor Man's Daughter" (a song Sparhawk said they didn't record for the debut because they weren't sure they could match the version they put on an early EP) buries you beneath post-Crazy Horse guitar scree that it's clear just how wall-to-wall compact and powerful 2 is. Eight songs, two brief, mood-setting guitar interludes, 33 minutes; there's not a second of filler here, from the haunted radio transmission and soaring coda of "Something's Going to Break" to the typically sardonic, strangely fitting "Bless Us All" to the eight epic minute firestorm of "Electric Guitar" (not a version of the alienated Talking Heads classic, but otherwise close to perfect). "Workin' Hard" and "White Wolf" make it clear that whatever sonic differences there are, Sparhawk's writing for the Retribution Gospel Choir isn't a million miles away from Constantines' recent work, and like that band the Choir manage to make music that genuinely rocks without getting bogged down in leaden, authenticity-obsessed revivalism or empty formalism.

Instead 2 is a record that's thrillingly alive, one that is just as sharp, funny, moving and self-lacerating as all of Sparhawk's best work, but that's more immediately ingratiating than a lot of it. The result is an album that isn't just a "good side project" record or a sop to fans (although it will make the wait for a new Low album much easier), but one that demands attention even from those who've written Sparhawk off as 'that slowcore guy'. After all, Low started out because Sparhawk and his bandmates were rebelling against the hardcore strictures of the scene in Duluth at the time. As good as the music they've made has been, on the basis of this album we should wish he started making full-on rock music years ago.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.