Much contemporary psychedelic music leans towards dense freak-outs and brown acid bad vibes. Not so Rose City Band: now more than ever, Portland, Oregon’s premier psychedelic country-rock project keeps determinedly to the sunny side.
Literally so on Garden Party: the fourth album by Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo frontman Ripley Johnson’s cosmic country outlet is at its core a celebration of laidback and sun-baked summer fun. If 2021’s excellent Earth Trip centred on the transcendental potential of nature, we’re now stopping and smelling the flowers and gathering the bounty at the bottom of the garden.
One of the album’s centrepieces, the extended, gently galloping J.J. Cale-meets-the-Grateful Dead groove of ‘Porch Boogie’, is an anthem for chilling on the titular porch on a warm day, watching the world go by in a heavy-lidded stupor. It and much of the rest of Garden Party sounds supremely baked: unhurried, hazy, ever so slightly warped around the edges.
All of which might suggest sluggish lack of drama and tension. As with previous Rose City Band records, Johnson’s aversion to fireworks and straining too hard makes for beautifully alluring, warmly inviting sounds that are much more than the sum of their uncomplicated parts.
The band started as a studio-based one-man band project. Although Johnson continues to handle the majority of the instruments (most notably the intricately intertwined quicksilver guitar parts) on his own, the startlingly powerful dynamics of Rose City Band’s potent live incarnation are reflected here too. Most notably in the sparkling dialogue between Johnson’s lead guitar and Barry Walker’s pedal steel on opener ‘Chasing Rainbows’: bringing to mind a contemporary psych-rock counterpart to the intuitive interplay between Neil Young and his legendary pedal steel sidekick Ben Keith, the sublimely sprightly track eventually settles into an expansive instrumental coda that the band is likely to catapult towards the stars on stage. ‘Moonlight Highway’ resembles the spaced-out melodic flights of 2020’s cosmic country masterpiece Summerlong, whilst ‘El Rio’ cooks up a mighty garage-country hypnosis from an elemental riff.
Johnson has acknowledged that these songs are likely to find their full bloom on stage. There are moments (the haunting flute-enriched first section of ‘Mariposa’, gradually eases into a slightly rote easy-going Rose City Band groove) during Garden Party where you hope that Johnson had a serious go at recreating the explosive dynamics and turbulent transitions from mellow jams to muscular cosmic noodling of the band’s live sets in the studio. Now that would really be a party for the ears.
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