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