Retribution Gospel Choir’s new album 2 is the sound of the band breaking free. Their self-titled debut felt like an interesting diversion, allowing singer/songwriter Alan Sparhawk to let go after years of restraint in Low. But it was hard to separate that minimally produced album from his original band’s shadow, especially when two of the songs had already appeared on the Low album Drums and Guns. 2 is an entirely different animal. From the soaring chords in the opener “Hide it Away,” there is a clear statement of purpose – this is a rock n’ roll band.
“The first album was mellower, because we were still getting things together as a band,” says Sparhawk. “Playing live after the first album came out, our sound became more aggressive. There was a new energy.”
And the new energy has been fleshed out by a somewhat surprising choice. The album’s producer, Matt Beckley, previously worked with acts like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Sparhawk has known Beckley for a while and felt like his experiences might bring something interesting to the table. He joked that Beckley is an auto-tuning expert (but was quick to point out that no auto-tuning was used on 2). Though there are probably no future #1 dance pop hits on the album, Beckley certainly delivers a precision of noise that is not often heard in today’s world of fuzz-loving indie rock bands.
Precision is also present in the album’s length, which at just over 30 minutes is barely longer than most EPs. Sparhawk feels this length is appropriate for RGC’s rock format, citing Weezer’s green album and Slayer’s Reign in Blood as albums that he enjoys because of their brevity. “For this sound, I like the shorter albums. I like it when you get done with an album, and you want to listen to it again.”
Despite the band’s deliberate steps away from the Low framework, this is still a Sparhawk album. As always, the songs are steeped in a Midwestern, working class desperation. On “Working Hard” and “Poor Man’s Daughter,” he’s exploring what he calls “the music of the people, of everyday life.” The epic “Electric Guitar” references a hard-luck musician, echoing the focus of Low’s “Death of a Salesman”. And he continues to tackle his complicated relationship with spirituality, sounding openly disdainful while he sings the title to the album’s closing salvo “Bless Us All.”
For Sparhawk, songwriting comes from a private place. “I’ve always been a somber writer, and I’m always sort of grappling with that. It is such a personal thing for me. I try to not steer it too much.” He says he does what comes naturally, and though he admits that the results can be “confusing,” he’s learned to trust what comes out.
In many reviews, it has become standard to compare RGC to Crazy Horse. Sparhawk says he’s been around long enough to know that, if one person writes something, all the other critics tend to jump on board. While he doesn’t think the band is a retread, he also understands where it’s coming from. “We’re a band that’s based on American rock. We come from a place that’s in the middle of where Bob Dylan and Neil Young came from. We’ve grown toward this sound naturally.”
Regardless of their influences, RGC has developed a reputation as an excellent live act, and in talking to Sparhawk, it’s easy to see why. “This is very physical music to play. When we’re performing live, we let our body and soul react to the music. After years of riding the edge of that strange little wave with Low, it’s been very interesting for me to open up.”
And he’s found that audiences have been willing to open up too. “Indie rock has made people reluctant to surrender to the sound. This band just wants everyone to let themselves go.”
Retribution Gospel Choir play Thursday night at the Canopy Club with locals New Ruins (Doors @ 9 p.m. – show @ 10 p.m., $8 Adv.)