Second album from Low’s Alan Sparhawk’s band on the side.
Daniel Ross 2010-02-18
Alan Sparhawk continues earnestly, whether he is working with his bigger act, atmospheric indie pioneers Low, or with this trio formed from Minnesotan musicians. His well-documented personal issues seem to have come to a final sort of a head (attendees at last summer’s End of the Road festival can probably testify to something similar after he lobbed his guitar into the audience) and, by the evidence displayed on this second Retribution Gospel Choir LP, he is taking his most positive steps to date. It is important to clarify, though, that these steps are explicitly expressional, not entirely musical. While much of 2 is rollicking stuff, there are occasional drops into the tepid.
On first inspection, the dusty, balls-out aesthetic is fiercely traditional, but buoyed by the considerable virtue of both Sparhawk’s emotive guitar playing and vocals. The record opens with one of his very strongest compositions to date, including his work with Low. Hide It Away is breathless, taut, energetic, shamelessly anthemic and everything a great rock song should be. Simplistic it may be at its core, but it pushes into artistically brutal areas that its composer is no doubt familiar with.
The weaker moments come with those compositions that may have been better explored with Low – a far more sensitive context. Poor Man's Daughter is not thunderous enough for all its bluster, and it is the song most clearly resembling the usual set-up of his better-known outfit. Furthermore, the examples that delve into rock’s blues history work least well in this trad-rock framework, and White Wolf proves it: the blue notes in the vocal are unnecessary and too obvious-sounding. Sparhawk has proved throughout his career that he need not rely on the roots of rock to make all of his musical gestures, so it’s jarring when settles for exactly that.
The rest of the record pretty much operates under that maxim – the experiments come off and leave the traditional world behind, making rewarding rock music. All the talk of Sparhawk releasing some pent-up anger through Retribution Gospel Choir seems a little too obvious, for this outfit is capable of producing some searing music – if only their leader would let go of his influences a little more, 2 could have been blinding. As things stand, it is merely very good and bodes well for both a third record and a great period for Sparhawk’s creativity.