“I’m not a contrary youth anymore; I’m a really, really angry adult. I’m tired of contrary. I want to draw some blood. Being contrary and ironic doesn’t work.”
- Alan Sparhawk
On the Retribution Gospel Choir’s website, Alan Sparhawk writes “I think this is a great record and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.” To some extent, the former claim is true, but the latter claim has been heavily undercut by the last couple of years. The Great Destroyer alone should have alerted any Low fan that Sparhawk and company were moving away from the none-more-hushed grandeur of Low’s early years, and last year’s masterful Drums and Guns confirmed that although you can’t predict where the band are going, they’re going to sound amazing wherever it is. So now we get Alan’s ‘rock’ sound project, not the first he’s had (although the Retribution Gospel Choir is certainly higher profile than the Black-Eyed Snakes, Hospital People, et al), and a few years after it would have been really surprising.
And the Choir is two thirds of Low in any case, the band including Low bassist Matt Livingston (who has since left both bands; his replacement Steve Garrington has taken over bass duties with both outfits), so the real difference here is that Alan isn’t playing and singing with his wife, Mimi Parker. Fans of her astounding voice and their unique, at times unsettling interplay may be disappointed, but that’s what Low albums are for. Only, Mimi actually does show up once here. On a version of “Breaker”, found on Drums and Guns. And the Retribution Gospel Choir version of “Breaker” sounds pretty close to what I heard the last time I saw Low live (one of the more interesting things about Drums and Guns being how completely uninterested Alan and Mimi seem to be in replicating the studio versions in concert). Which means that instead of a funky little drum machine shuffle, hand claps, and an organ, we get a bruising rock run-through of the tune, Alan and Mimi wailing out “There’s got to be an end to that!” like they’re being chased. The result is a thrill that Low fans only used to get when the band dressed up like the Misfits for Halloween to play old favourites with new fire. Although Low’s often painstaking approach to sound and pacing in the early days paid dividends, hearing them juice up their own material carries a similar but opposite thrill as their transformative covers of other bands’ songs.
Retribution Gospel Choir also takes on Drums and Guns’ “Take Your Time” (without Mimi), and the result is less predictably thrilling. “Breaker”, even on Drums and Guns, always seemed pent up, ready to explode; “Take Your Time” was a caustically slow burn, and transposing that to basic, distorted guitar/bass/drums is less interesting than it might be otherwise. Yet the rest of the material here hasn’t shown up on Low albums, and it doesn’t really sound like it could have. “Destroyer” packs the full extent of Alan’s love for Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer”/“Don’t Be Denied” punch into three-and-a-half minutes, panting out a typically dark fable (“Well, I coulda been a sailor / Lay my life down for the Queen / But when the ocean took my brother / It put a curse on everything”) with the intensity he’s only really mastered since growing up and getting mad as hell.
Because even though Retribution Gospel Choir feels in some ways more relaxed than possibly any Low album—the half-hour running time, the letting-it-all-hang-out fuzz, the attack and simplicity of the music, Alan’s occasional dip into shaggy dog territory (“What She Turned Into,” “Kids”) that wouldn’t quite work with Low’s actual and assumed gravitas—this release continues the trend of everything Sparhawk has done since 2002’s majestic Trust, where he matured from the contrary kid who wanted to play so slow as a goof on the Duluth hardcore scene into a sometimes frighteningly intense man. What’s he so angry at? Politics, certainly (“Somebody’s Someone” just being the latest in a series of crushingly oblique stabs at the current administration). But the last couple of Low albums have also contained what I would swear are some fairly serious swipes at religion—or at least religious certainty—and if nothing here is quite as self-loathing as “Murderer”, certainly “Holes in Our Heads” and “They Knew You Well” read as more painful self-examination.
Retribution Gospel Choir ends with “Easy Prey”, markedly more jaunty than the rest of the album, but still foreboding. The fuzzed-out power trio setting suits Alan’s new intensity, but there’s something a little underwhelming about the end result. Maybe it’s that some of the stronger material from the two tour EPs the band put out aren’t result; maybe it’s that some of the stronger material from the two tour EPs the band put out aren’t here. That makes a certain amount of sense, as “Poor Man’s Daughter”, the biggest standout, is a lengthy, howling, Crazy Horsian epic, and Alan seems determined to keep the album brief and snappy. Which does kind of work, as Retribution Gospel Choir is what you might call engagingly slight, and plenty interesting on its own terms. But it’s more promising than fulfilling—one senses we’ll need to wait until next time, when the Retribution Gospel Choir hopefully ditches the Low covers, for them to really come into their own.