Low makes exactly the sort of music I expect to come from people who routinely survive Minnesota winters. It’s slow and mostly depressing, with a pretty dark sense of humor (“All the Pretty People,” from Drums and Guns, exemplifies all three traits with its cheerless refrain of “all the pretty people/ are all gonna die”). At times, it can be beautiful, but I have to be in a particular mood to sit through an entire Low record.
So what does it sound like when two members of Low team up with a fantastic drummer and make a rock record? Is it the sweet summer to Low’s long, cold winter? Well, sort of. Low vocalist Alan Sparhawk (Sparhawk would be a good name for any given prog-metal cover band) formed the awesomely-named Retribution Gospel Choir with Low bassist Steve Garrington and Eric Pollard, the aforementioned fantastic drummer, and proceeded to rock out… in a Duluth, Minnesota, sort of way.
There are obvious differences between Retribution Gospel Choir and Low. Where Low is often quiet and dramatic, Retribution Gospel Choir is loud and dramatic. Low is slow (their genre is, I’m not making this up, “slow-core” which is fun to say but also a reason why I loathe the very concept of genre – cut to the scene from Adaptation where Donald says, “My genre’s the thriller, what’s yours?” and Charlie says, “Don’t say genre.”) and Retribution Gospel Choir is…um… slightly less slow. The Choir does get a little up-tempo on a couple of songs but, like Sparhawk and Garrington’s full-time gig, the band seems most comfortable at a slow to moderate pace. Also, Retribution Gospel Choir has squalling electric guitars where Low usually has nothing.
So it must have been fun for Sparhawk to plug in and play chunky electric riffs in a meat-and-potatoes (or soy-nuggets and carrot sticks for vegetarian listeners) rock band, but albums that are fun to make are not always fun to listen to. I have no doubt that Them Crooked Vultures had a ball making their album; I only wish they’d taken the time to write some actual songs while they were at it. Good news, though: 2, the aptly titled second album from Retribution Gospel Choir, has actual songs and they’re actually pretty good.
Though 2 could be faulted for padding a little (two of the ten tracks are instrumental fillers and “Electric Guitar” is unnecessarily long), it is a generally pleasing rock record in an era when too many rock records are pseudo-punk or cringe-inducing emo and it may end up pleasing folks who have a hard time getting into Low’s slower, more morose stuff (I couldn’t even really call myself a Low fan; I only own Drums and Guns and I heard Trust once in a record store and really dug it). There are some excellent harmonies on 2, especially on opener “Hide It Away” and “Workin’ Hard” and Sparhawk makes the most of his time with the loud electric guitar, mostly opting for slow-burning, chord-based riffs and avoiding the temptation to engage in noodly, look-at-how-fast-my-fingers-are bullshit.
I hope it’s obvious by now that I’d rate 2 a good, solid Pleasing Enough. And I hope it’s obvious that there is the implication of a “but…” on the end of that Pleasing Enough. And here it is:
But… while all the elements that make up Retribution Gospel Choir are undeniably good (I think I mentioned the good drumming, yeah?), 2 doesn’t stick to my musical ribs much at all (your musical ribs, according to the experts I just made up, are located just inside your ears. When songs or albums are running through your head all day, it’s because they’re stuck to your musical ribs). There are only three tracks that I think are honestly memorable (“Hide It Away,” the oddball “Something’s Going to Break”, and closer “Bless Us All,” which ends with the line, “We buried ourselves in the arms of our enemies/ so the last thing I need/ is a lover”) out of the ten and the rest are a not-bad blur of chords, harmonies, and pounding drums. I have to assume Garrington played something besides the bass on 2 because there are no memorable bass lines on the album at all (when you listen to an album at least a dozen times before you write about it, you start to pay attention to different parts. I’ve listened to London Calling so many times that I can almost pick out the distinct pianos on “The Card Cheat” – there are at least two because Mick Jones wanted to beef up the sound). The highlights on 2 make the whole album worth listening to but, like the last thing I heard from Wye Oak, the handful of brilliant tracks make you want to take the band aside and say, “See what worked on these songs? Why can’t you do that all the time?” Of course, no one can be brilliant all the time. But why put songs like “Hide It Away” alongside songs like “’68 Comeback”, which has no reason to exist? With a little more time and elbow grease, 2 could have been among the best rock albums of the year. And I know Retribution Gospel Choir is supposed to be a side-project, but if you record an album with your side project and expect people to pay money for it, you could meet them half way with some good tunes. Hell, the Shins started as a side project (I’m just full of fun facts today, I guess) and when people started digging it, James Mercer did the right thing and crafted two and a half beautiful records (Wincing the Night Away puts me to sleep after the excellent “Turn On Me”) before taking a break to team up with my favorite indie/hip-hop Jedi, DJ Danger Mouse. The point is, as side projects go, Retribution Gospel Choir has a lot of promise if they can muster the discipline to make a complete album. As it is, 2 is Pleasing Enough when it could be Fucking Awesome, which makes it just a slight disappointment.