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Retribution Gospel Choir - 2

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Artist: Retribution Gospel Choir

Album: 2

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Jan. 26, 2010

Undermining expectations can only get you so far, something that the three members of Retribution Gospel Choir seem to have taken to heart when making their second album. Their self-titled debut boasted solid, catchy songs, ably produced by Mark Kozelek. It did much to shift perceptions of the musical range of singer-guitarist Alan Sparhawk, best known for the music made with his wife Mimi Parker in Low. The Sparhawk heard here seemed to be channeling all of the emotions kept restrained in his more well-known group, and the rhythm section of Eric Pollard and Steve Garrington yielded a sound that left appropriate tribute at the altar of Neil Young. Retribution Gospel Choir’s drums pounded, the guitars raged, and there was even space for one cheeky “Amen” delivered as the song “Kids” came to a close.

Once you’ve established that your range extends far beyond slow-burning meditations on morality, mortality, and family, what comes next? 2 stands as the point where the group’s sound expands further: from, for lack of a better phrase, a kind of not-Low to a distinctive identity of their own. Does it work? It does—but the great surprise of this album may be that Retribution Gospel Choir sound their best when their mood is at its most subdued.

2’s guitars are bigger than those heard on the group’s debut, with a more forceful emphasis on pop hooks. “Working Hard” and “Hide It Away” are, quite simply and unabashedly, hard rock songs, and catchy ones at that. (Perhaps it’s just the similarity in titles, but the former doesn’t seem too far removed from the Constantines’ “Working Fulltime.”) And both contain guitar solos that recall Mark Kozelek at his most soaring.

The songs heard on 2 aren’t simply splitting the difference between arena-sized anthems and barroom singalongs, however. There’s a concern with contrast here, and it’s something that leads to the album’s most noteworthy moments, even as it also prompts the spaces where it stumbles. Two songs—“’68 Comeback” and “The Last of the Blue Dream”—are brief interludes of less than a minute in length, less counterpointing the more complex songs around them than barely registering. And “Poor Man’s Daughter,” which takes the most overtly ominous tone on the album, is flattened at its conclusion when a slow build abruptly gives way to a stripped-down arrangement of the song’s chorus. Instead of a head-turning change of pace from the brooding music that’s led into it, it instead loses the momentum built over the previous four and a half minutes.

The mixing board is used more deftly on “Electric Guitar,” which, over the course of eight minutes, sprawls as its melody ebbs and flows. It segues into “Bless Us All,” the album’s unsettling final song, and 2’s apex. It’s in the vein of their debut’s “Kids,” Sparhawk’s vocals half desperate and half mocking, the band at their most restrained. At one point, a layer of voices can be heard, though it’s a far cry stylistically from any kind of choir, gospel or otherwise. “We were pawns in a fairy tale / Bless us all,” Sparhawk sings. “Put our hearts in the promised land / We buried ourselves / In the arms of our enemies / So the last thing I need / Is a lover.” There’s a slow fade, then a brief jumbled stretch of crossed frequencies, and then silence. A bitter, quiet ending to an upbeat album of anthems? Not the way one would have expected this to end—making this an impressive conclusion to a memorable, if flawed, album.

By Tobias Carroll

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