In almost two decades with the band Low, Alan Sparhawk has produced a formidable body of work founded in a steady, uncompromising exploration of the limits of restraint in rock ‘n’ roll. As a fan of his work with that outfit, and accustomed to its typically sluggish modus operandi, Sparhawk’s relatively amped-up project Retribution Gospel Choir always seemed to me an uncertain proposition. Yet the parched, decisive rock of their eponymous debut proved a pleasant surprise, demonstrating that Sparhawk’s intensity as a vocalist and songwriter could not only survive a jump in both volume and BPM, but also flourish within such expanded parameters. At the album’s peaks, the menacing, fervent facets of his lyrical and vocal styling were beautifully bolstered by his own formidable skill on guitar and the capable, dynamic rhythm section of Eric Pollard on drums and fellow Low-er Matt Livingston on bass. Sparhawk and Co. were able to both capitalize on Low’s ample experience in tension construction and couple it with their own ability to consistently deliver a truly righteous, well-deserved payoff.
A little less than two years since, the trio (currently composed of Sparhawk, Pollard, and current Low member Steve Garrington) has released its sophomore full-length, the aptly titled 2. Regrettably, these many months hence, there’s little left of the promise their debut held for the group. Instead, 2 is a true bummer of a record, trading in warm, hungry, considerately constructed basement rock for lifeless stadium bombast and slick production gimmicks. There’s nothing inherently distasteful about aiming for the nosebleeds — in fact, it’s a laudable act of daring amidst fairly widespread aversion to such lofty polish — but it’s a production choice that inescapably requires a sky-high performance to give it a real sense of life, and 2 never consistently comes through with anything musically or lyrically momentous enough to warrant all of the fanfare.
Generally, the good news is frontloaded. The album’s first track, “Hide It Away,” is its lead single and its most successful moment. Sounding almost like a nod to U2’s epitomic anthem “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” it’s a well-selected opener and a bold statement of purpose for a record bound to surprise even serious fans of the one that preceded it. The song is a rock production barnstormer, all larger-than-life drums, soaring vocal harmonies, devastating guitars, and a seriously ass-kicking Sparhawk solo — heck, for fans of rock grandeur, it’s a downright irresistible effort. Darker standouts “Your Bird” and “Poor Man’s Daughter” (a song the group has been playing live as far back as 2005, and which first appeared on its second tour EP the following year) occupy 2’s second and fifth spots, respectively, and both are further testaments to what the band is capable of with such monstrous production options at their disposal. Lumbering stompers along the same lines as much of the Choir’s debut record, they benefit from the weight they’re afforded by punishingly heavy guitar and drum tones. “Poor Man’s Daughter,” in particular, stands out as the height of Sparhawk’s guitar heroism, and it’s impressive to hear him piss into the wind and just let it absolutely rip. And while such guitar lust is often liable to spin off into indulgence, here it’s gracefully diffused with a gorgeous counterpoint, as the track’s thundering drums and guitar ultimately dissolve toward conclusion in 2’s starkest, piercing moment: simple, unaffected voices accompanied by a single acoustic guitar.
Unfortunately, the album never consistently reaches these same altitudes again, despite its relatively steady amplitude. As the record carries on, with everything so often turned up to 11, all of its stumbles are magnified, sometimes to nearly groan-worthy proportions. “’68 Comeback” and “The Last of the Blue Dream” are both less than a minute long and are little more than dull and underdeveloped. “Blue Dream” hardly even constitutes a musical idea. Elsewhere, “Workin’ Hard” and “White Wolf” fail to transcend limp genre exercises, phoning it in with predictable verse-chorus-verse structural frameworks and hardly offering the band any space to stretch out. The latter sounds like Sparhawk playing at the Country Top 40, while the former is more potent for the many classic songs it might invoke than for anything it accomplishes itself, stumbling under the collective weight of its referents.
By its final three cuts, which account for nearly half of its total running time, the album feels deflated. “Something’s Going to Break,” “Electric Guitar,” and “Bless Us All” linger too long over too little and can’t get the engines running again before drawing the enterprise to a close. Ultimately, 2 just never seems to come together. While the whole experience lasts a little less than 34 minutes, it feels cumbersome and unsteady, lingering where you’d hope it wouldn’t and leaving its strongest moments behind before you’ve really gotten a chance to savor them. While Retribution Gospel Choir paid homage to the language of classic rock, its revivalist interests never obscured the beating hearts of its makers. On that debut LP, the band sounded rough-hewn and plainly human, yet still able to achieve musical transcendence, both by chemistry and by sheer will. 2, on the other hand, often feels like a shallow pastiche of rock tropes from the last 40 years, bathed in a gargantuan studio-sheen that doesn’t do it any favors. This time out, the Choir sound towering and ready to soar from the album’s opening moments, but 2’s sonic pretenses are finally too much for the material to bear, and despite the band’s best efforts, it just can’t get airborne.