Retribution Gospel Choir Retribution Gospel Choir

[Caldo Verde; 2008]

Styles: slowcore with a little more menace, bubblegrunge
Others: Low, Come, organic skim low-carb Alice in Chains

Low frontman Alan Sparhawk’s new vanity project Retribution Gospel Choir is a tidy little 10 songs in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, this is some dull stuff, even if you’ve got the patience Low usually requires. Sparhawk has put together a different trio that sounds like it wants to prefix “power-” onto that designation, but while the distortion is amped up, his songwriting isn’t. “Somebody’s Someone” is a little more interesting than the rest, just because its riffs move a little quicker and the vocal hook sticks a little stickier. The back half picks up a little, too, with “What She Turned Into” and “For Her Blood.” At its worst, though, the Choir comes off like the high school band who tried to go arena-sized on a garage budget and wound up dripping lumpy globs of past-the-expiration-date Pearl Jam in your ears.

There’s not even much to recommend this album to the Low faithful, let alone new ears; Sparhawk just isn’t playing to his own strengths. The music isn’t actively unpleasant, but it feels like watching a talented friend play an uninvited, self-indulgent solo set in the living room at the after party, after the rest of the band has already had enough sense to pack up and go home. This is really frustrating because Low already busted out of their saddie minimalist pigeonhole a couple years back with The Great Destroyer, which proved that they were, in fact, capable of making big, loud rock songs (at least when Dave Fridmann is sitting behind the boards). Then they pulled another exciting hairpin turn last year on Drums and Guns, dipping into static-y electronics and dream pop that sounded more appropriate for the era of Laika (the dog AND the band). But think back to Sparhawk’s previous, even more indulgent solo effort, Solo Guitar, which featured a note-for-note cover of Van Halen’s legendary finger-twiddler “Eruption,” and you remember it’s not like he hasn’t done this before. In fact, the latter-day incarnation of Low has been at its best, ever since Alan started to cull the chaff ahead of time on projects like this and let his main band feast upon the whole-grain goodness of his wheat.

Regrettably, the best that can be said about Retribution Gospel Choir is that hopefully Sparhawk has gotten his ya-yas out and can now get back down to business next time Low hits the studio. And since Mark Kozolek (retired Red House Painter) produced this joint, at least you'll be reminded of his new Sun Kil Moon album coming out this spring at long last. Even if it’s no Ghosts of the Great Highway, at least he’ll be the one on the other side of the recording booth window.

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