It really tickles me to see how Retribution Gospel Choir works, and how Alan Sparhawk is making up for his years of restraint. Although they’re a couple of albums into their existence now, it still seems hilarious that Low’s soft-singing frontman is also strutting around – hips aswagger – in a high-powered denim’n’leather rock trio, to which he’s also recruited all of the rest of Low bar Mimi Parker. Even his other sideline (reinventing the blues with Black Eyed Snakes) wasn’t so funny purely on spec. It does make a good joke: but close examination also reveals that it also makes perfect sense.
On the surface (and just by the sound of their crunching riffs, cowbells and stadium-size drumming) RGC is eternal boy-man stuff. Bollock-crushingly tight jeans, the roar of hot-rod chrome, huge dollops of garage grease. Underneath, though, there’s a series of smash-and-grab raids on assorted archetypes, delivered by Alan and co. with relish. It also turns out that RGC takes Low’s logic of song minimalism, and their gift for the simple telling phrase, and transferred it wholesale to 1970s hard rock. The songs on this EP just punch past two or three minutes each, and seem shorter: they deliver their message, then snap out the light. As for those archetypes, they could hardly be more American – rock music, family, (obliquely Christian) faith and revolution – and, in their way, more conservative. Yet even within a couple of minutes or a couple of lines, Alan’s both turning over and living their contradictions. The setting’s gloriously dumb; the thinking is less so. If Bad Company had written haikus…
On Feel It, Superior, Alan plunges into temptation, risk, delight and inspiration over a Motown-savouring rock thump – handclaps and chopped-off chunks of guitar, a chassis of Hammond organ. Conflating the Beatles with the Fall of Man (“I remember the day / we fell for the apple…”) says everything about America’s protracted, near-religious teenage love affair with rock: all of the sin, all of the potential for growth. Throughout the EP, rock-gospel shout-outs demands that we “shake up the stage”, “drop in the echo”, or “turn it up / and ring the speaker like a bell”. At the same time, Alan bats around seeds of revelation and despair. The Stone (Revolution) asserts “The stone buried deep within the earth, / it doesn’t know, it doesn’t know it’s own worth”: elsewhere, Alan confesses “deep in my heart I feel your pain / I know the dark, / I know the darkness like a shame.”
The butch, confident sound might be ‘70s but the mindset is more ‘60s. Values in question, reactions in spate. Alan seems happy to straddle this. I’m A Man is full of masculine exhortations, muscle-flexing riffs, hero drumming and assurances that “I understand.” Yet it’s the briefest song on offer and, after the initial rush, quickly falls silent: a clumsy, sheepish giant. Maharisha slings both ire and sympathy at errant teens sleepwalking in search of belief. Over an assured and chunky stomp, (part-Cars, part-All Right Now) Alan casts himself as scolding parent: “You said you’d be right back, / you nearly gave me a heart attack!” Even when curling his lip at the attractions of dodgy philosophies (“The Maharisha is blind, you’re… wasting your time”) he still dredges up some rough kindness (“You’ve got to figure it out, it’s like you’ve got the amnesia”).
If it wasn’t for his lifetime of committed Mormonism, I could have sworn he was telling off his own wandering teenage self and ruffling its hair at the same time. Maybe he is. Despite all of the muscle and fervency, this band readily understands and accepts human weakness.
Retribution Gospel Choir: ‘The Revolution’ EP
Sub Pop Records, SP993
7” vinyl/download EP
Released: February 29th 2012