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Retribution Gospel Choir

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Album Review

Less a side project than a sort of alternate reality version of Low, Retribution Gospel Choir allow Alan Sparhawk, guitarist and songwriter of that legendarily quiet, minimal slowcore outfit (along with bassist Matt Livingston, a recent addition to Low's lineup) the chance to play music that, while still pretty minimalist, conceptually anyway, and often fairly slow, is definitely not quiet. Make no mistake, this is capital-R Rock music through and through, of the gruff and gloriously hazy variety typically associated with the stoner '70s and alternative nation '90s — dense and thorny, with pummeling drums and grungy guitars galore. But at heart it's not particularly far removed from Sparhawk's primary concern: Low are a quintessentially '90s band after all, initially conceived as a nonconformist response to the grunge explosion but certainly not a wholly contrarian one, and the Low of the 2000s have amply demonstrated their propensity for rocking out in a flannel-flavored vein, at first on 2001's Trust but most notably on 2005's The Great Destroyer, which would have blended right in had it appeared ten years earlier. (Meanwhile, Sparhawk's status as a closet guitar god was well established on 2006's free-form one-man band turn Solo Guitar.) So fans of Low will find plenty to embrace here, especially those who have relished those recent developments; by the same token, Retribution Gospel Choir could well still try the patience of nonbelievers, as turning up certainly hasn't purged Sparhawk of his searing intensity or his elemental, no-frills songwriting style. There is appreciable variety here, from the punishingly relentless, dirgelike opener, "They Knew You Well," and the driving, riff-driven "Somebody's Someone" to deceptively mellow, epically escalating slow-burners "Destroyer" and "Holes in Our Heads" and the hooky power pop of "For Her Blood" and "Easy Prey," but in terms of sonic texture this album bears a singularity of purpose that's just as hypnotically consistent as Low's early work. Two numbers, "Take Your Time" and "Breaker," recur from the last Low album, the witheringly sparse Drums and Guns, and both of them are substantially reimagined, with "Breaker" in particular (a song that actually originated with this group) channeling a tremendous emotional release to match its lyrical fury and the tense potency of the Low version (although, since Mimi Parker joins the Choir to sing on this track, it effectively is a Low performance with a different drummer). It's nice to hear her there, but, perhaps surprisingly, Parker's vocal presence (always a crucial element to Low's ineffable magic) truly isn't missed here: Sparhawk's pipes are plenty potent to deliver his as-always indelible melodies, and the density of his multi-tracked guitar work offers a different but equal substitute for the pair's harmonic interplay. Which, come to think of it, is an excellent indication that this band deserves attention on its own merits, and not merely as the master of muted moodiness moonlighting in a garage rock group. ~ K. Ross Hoffman, Rovi


Formed: 2005 in Duluth, MN

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s

Retribution Gospel Choir debuted in 2005 as primarily a live enterprise spearheaded by two seminal masters of spare, quiet indie rock, Low's Alan Sparhawk and Mark Kozelek of the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. A series of enthusiastically received tours found the two guitarists reveling in the opportunity to rock out far more than they ever did their main bands, unleashing sludgy, classic rock-infused riffage and squalling simultaneous solos, and covering of the likes of Neil Young and the...
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