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Artist: Retribution Gospel Choir

Album: Retribution Gospel Choir

Label: Caldo Verde

Review date: Mar. 17, 2008


Retribution Gospel Choir - "Breaker" (Retribution Gospel Choir)


From its earliest days, Low has amassed comparison after comparison to Neil Young. If you look around the web, it is not hard to find live covers, most recently a version of "Down By the River" recorded in Melbourne this January. Yet, it’s normally been Young’s delicate, folky acoustic work that has come to mind when people consider the music of Alan Sparhawk. Now, with the louder, fuzzier, more urgent and distorted Gospel Retribution Choir, Sparhawk again sounds like Neil Young, but this time the Neil of “Cortez the Killer.”

Gospel Retribution Choir is a relatively recent side project for Sparhawk, supported by Low bass player Matt Livingston and drummer Eric Pollard. A fall 2007 tour with Mark Kozelek (who sometimes plays live with the band and who produced this full-length), a couple of EPs and a handful of Duluth area performances captured on YouTube were the only proof that this band existed. But with this self-titled debut, Retribution Gospel Choir springs forth fully formed and emotionally resonant, rough and powerful and gorgeous. Never mind that two of its songs first came out on Low’s last album Drums & Guns – this is a wholly new entity.

In fact, the best way to get a grip on how different this new band is from the old one is to listen to the two songs that are common to both, first “Breaker” and then “Take Your Time.” On Drums & Guns, “Breaker” plugs along on a staccato electric beat, delicate harmonies floating above church-like organ tones. It is an ethereal, gossamer sort of song. Even its violent lyrics – “Our bodies break / and the blood just spills and spills” – seem to exist in a disembodied, non-corporeal space, a heavenly ever-after that views earthly suffering from a distance. The song takes a far more visceral, bodily form on Retribution Gospel Choir, its churn of distorted guitars, its palm muted chug of urgency underlining the struggle rather than the resolution of physical effort. It is shorter, by almost a minute, faster-paced and tethered firmly to the here and now. Even when Mimi Parker joins in for the harmonies, the effect is less an angel’s choir than a banshee wail. Gospel? Perhaps. Retribution? Almost certainly.

Similarly, “Take Your Time” in the Low version coalesces out of unearthly, wordless singing, clanging bells and abstracted tones of piano. It is dreamlike, serene and beautifully mysterious. Gospel Retribution Choir’s version takes the same notes, the same pace, and the same lyrical content and transforms it. It becomes wrenching, tortured and full of turmoil. The guitar and bass grind out harsh and conflicted tones, the drummer sets off minor explosions of angst and trouble. The singing, which is exactly the same melody as before, has none of Low’s chilly remove. It is right here and now, and in a certain amount of pain.

The new songs are similarly grounded and physical, abrasive with feedback. The opening riff to “They Knew You Well,” could be Silkworm in its prime, rocking slow and mournfully over painful, thick-set chords. “What She Turned Into” feels, at first, more lighthearted, still heavy but in a major uplifting key. The chorus, “Then she turned into the rain,” is out-and-out celebratory, cascading down a series of sequential notes in joyful abandon. And “Kids,” with its Neil-Young-ish, clamped down strumming hides a sly sense of humor as it pokes fun at the next generation. (Sparhawk may well be the first dad-rock guy to write a chorus that starts “Those damned kids / don’t they understand / that you can’t do shit like that.”)

And then, by the album’s latter half, having made the case that Retribution Gospel Choir is definitely not Low, not even close, not even similar, the band offers “Destroyer.” Here, breaking the trend, the tremulous singing and dirty guitars sound just like Low, but louder. Even more than the shared titles, it’s the song that makes the connection between Low and Retribution Gospel Choir, then and now, physical and spiritual. It’s a beautiful thing, all the rage and earthly strife that Low always repressed is suddenly let loose upon the world. It makes you want to start all over again, looking for commonalities between the two bands instead of differences.

By Jennifer Kelly

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