A beautiful exercise in patience-testing
It’s a puzzle to figure out the artistic divisions between an artist’s various projects. Why did he form this band when he already has one? What did he see as the restraints of the first project that necessitated an entirely new name? What new sounds are they exploring that they felt were not conducive to their existing bands? With Ripley Johnson, the answer is simple. Wooden Shjips is for fuzzed-out psych-rock laced with ’70s pastiche (the name comes from a Crosby, Stills, and Nash song covered later by Jefferson Airplane), while Moon Duo experiments with kraut-rock synthesizers and more stable, hypnotic grooves. His solo project, Rose City Band, is the most sedate and country of the three, with more acoustic guitars, pedal steel and breezy vibes. Sadly, Earth Trip, his third project under this name, is the most tedious yet, a pretty endurance test that lacks the biting texture or improvisational flair to justify its nonexistent compositions.
The purpose of this particular Johnson band is to cut down on the abrasive feedback and synth layers for something more streamlined and low-key. However, even Summerlong, the last album in this series, had pulse and verve to it. Yes, there were still moments that dragged on past a reasonable point, a trademark of his, but “Real Long Gone” had an infectious country-gait and “Morning Light” and “Wildflowers” featured the poppiest rhythms so far. There were feedback and crunchier moments to give the album some variety; Earth Trip is just as long yet nowhere near as diverse or hard-hitting.
There’s no denying that Johnson knows how to make pretty music. Outside of sudden feedback-laden shredding mixed with a wah-wah pedal on “Lonely Places” that was not well-balanced, the production cannot be faulted. The pedal steel and acoustic guitars are warm and inviting, and the reverb-saturated vocals are well-mixed and atmospheric. It’s hard not to get into the spiraling arpeggios on “Rabbit” or the faster groove on “Ramblin’ With The Day” when they sound this intoxicating. The problem is that the other moments on the album with any spark to them are the aforementioned poor blending and a drum solo that comes on “Dawn Patrol” with two minutes left to go in the album’s running time. Otherwise, the album’s splendor unravels after hearing the same sounds over and over again with little in the way of progression or build.
Across all his projects, Johnson tends to write longer songs, and Earth Trip is no different. Half of the eight songs here cross the five-minute mark. The classic psych-rock that Johnson so clearly emulates with Wooden Shjips was allowed to go long because there were solos and moments of improvisation to keep the listener’s attention. Summerlong was also aware of this because it had more melodic guitar progressions and something resembling a hook. It’s hard not to feel like Earth Trip is full of interludes to an album that doesn’t exist because the songs do not modulate or change in any way. Right from song two, the almost eight-minute “In The Rain,” it’s clear that Johnson is not going to accommodate any listener who is not fully invested in the vibes. For die-hards of psychedelic country, perhaps that will be enough. Everyone else is better satiated by going back to Summerlong and not dying of hunger for structure or compositions because they aren’t going to get it on Earth Trip.