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Rose City Band - Summerlong (Album Review)

Wednesday, 20 May 2020 Written by Graeme Marsh

Photo: Jason Quigley

When Rose City Band released their self-titled debut last year, it flew under the radar like a passing gnat. Perhaps that was because of the discreet presence of Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo guitar wizard Ripley Johnson. Had it been more widely known that this was another vehicle for his sonic walkabouts then its arrival might have been more widely heralded.

And yet, his incognito appearance was the whole point. Rose City Band’s bow represented a dog-leg career turn for Johnson, churning out psychedelic-tinged country-rock that put a new twist on the Grateful Dead formula. Gone was the layer of fuzz and mystery that accompanied his other bands’ most revered work, replaced by a much more visible personal touch, with his vocals stripped bare.

‘Summerlong’ finds Johnson planting his Rose City feet in two distinct grow bags–one of upbeat, uplifting jams and the other in more ruminative trudges, although the bouncy numbers vastly outnumber their counterparts.

Of the latter template, Empty Bottles is one of the clearest examples of Johnson’s veil being pulled back.

With his voice out in the open, its pleasantly relaxing core is not the type of thing you’d expect from the Portland’s maestro. Neither is the slow crawl of Floating Out, a track that hints at what the Jesus and Mary Chain might sound like when they’re drawing their state pensions.

The more playful cuts, however, drive this album straight from the off with Only Lonely, a song with heavy flecks of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising that defies all expectations of what Johnson’s music is expected to do. Morning Light is another to benefit from Johnson’s upbeat outlook, with its country ambience dialled up alongside excellent guitar work. On the ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll groover Real Long Gone, though, Johnson kicks the axe-wielding up a notch to dazzling–it’s simply some of the best playing he has ever laid down.

Both Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo rely heavily on Johnson’s love of repetition but it isn’t until bluesy plodder Reno Shuffle that something bearing a resemblance to this preference appears. Admittedly, it doesn’t set the world alight during its first half, its cyclical pattern lacking the appeal of its cousins from other projects, but some familiar echo-laden, warped guitar tones elevate its conclusion handsomely. 

The final two tracks, though, are probably the LP’s finest moments. Feeling as one due to their uncanny percussive similarities, both Wee Hours and Wildflowers emit a kind of Sultans of Swing vibe and hit on clockwork grooves that allow Johnson’s guitar expertise to take over beautifully. The latter, in particular, bears his familiar three-step chord sequence to leave you in no doubt as to who this is.

Rose City Band’s second album is something that needs time to breathe, and it requires your full attention. And, in contrast to the laid back, summery feel being aimed for, it doesn’t work at low volume either. It should be blasted, and once you do that you might just get it. It is a classic example of a grower—give it a chance and you won’t regret it.

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