As a musical conceit, Retribution Gospel Choir has everything working for it. The band comprises singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk and bassist Matt Livingston (two-thirds of Low), plus drummer Eric Pollard, and the idea, evident from the opening track, is that this is Sparkhawk’s chance to add muscle (read: a full drumset) to the haunting, glacial melodies of his primary band. For fans of Low, especially those who bought into the distinctively heavier and quicker tone of 2005’s The Great Destroyer, Retribution Gospel Choir’s self-titled debut seems destined to succeed.
And in large part, it does. “Kids,” “For Her Blood,” “Easy Prey," and “They Knew You Well” play up Sparhawk’s keen sense of pacing and pop melody, but it’s Pollard who shines, delivering a tasteful but propulsive heft for the louder — but still minimal — guitar and bass crunch. It’s exciting, at times, to hear Sparhawk’s voice integrated into a more conventional rock ‘n’ roll approach. With Sparhawk’s and Livingston’s pedigree, it’d be unexpected for the songs to stray too far from the darkly cathartic Low blueprint, but with the help of Mark Kozelek’s dry, unfettered production, Retribution Gospel Choir accomplishes exactly what it sets out to.
To the members’ ultimate disadvantage, however, Retribution Gospel Choir’s successes are tempered with several songs that only go as far as fulfilling the template. The two most glaring examples are “Breaker” and “Take Your Time,” both of which were included on Low’s 2007 album, Drums and Guns. “Breaker,” from what I understand, began as a Retribution Gospel Choir song (the band has had several incarnations in the past years), and here it appears with a heavy backbeat replacing the organ and handclaps of the Low version. And “Take Your Time,” in this incarnation, adds a fidgety drum pattern atop the same odd-time, hauntingly simple guitar chords from the Drums and Guns version.
Unfortunately, these “new” versions identify a disorder afflicting much of the album: The songs seem, for lack of a more complete sentence, unfinished. In Low, due to the often exceptionally slow tempos, Sparhawk, Livingston, and drummer Mimi Parker create sonic landscapes that negate the need for traditional song structures. Songs like “Pretty People” from Drums and Guns, “Pissing” from The Great Destroyer, and “Whitetail” from 2001’s Things We Lost in the Fire function fully and beautifully without conventional choruses. They aren’t half-finished ideas; they are simple and direct encapsulations of a mood, cathartic in their own fragmented ways.
But Retribution Gospel Choir, despite the other bands associated with it, is a rock ‘n’ roll band, and songs like “Somebody’s Someone,” “Holes in Our Heads,” and “What She Turned Into,” while all catchy, feel incomplete, in large part due to the fact that Sparhawk sticks to the same Low songwriting formula. “Kids” and “Easy Prey” are the album standouts, but even so, they sound too familiar to “Silver Rider” from The Great Destroyer — only slightly sped-up and significantly louder. And where Sparhawk is adept at brief but cathartic moments (see the last five songs of The Great Destroyer), in Retribution Gospel Choir those moments are fleeting, coming only at the end of coincidentally named “Destroyer” and “Kids,” which, fitting with the band name, ends with a beautifully aching “Amen.” If the album were as strong as these two passing moments, it’d be enough to forgive its other trespasses.