Ripley Johnson, with his gently sweeping guitar chords and his drifting, searching tone of voice, has long been associated with being at the very forefront of modern-day Psychedelia, with chartering new paths along which both his previous bands Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo sailed. He is credited with helping to give it a wholly modern feel with gentle, searching and instantly recognisable whispers in reminiscence to some former past. Now with no constraints and under the guise of the Rose City Band, Johnson can really allow himself to own that spotlight at the centre of the stage.
Starting purely as a liberating project, the Rose City Band has become the archetypal vehicle with which to showcase a singer and musician confident and mature. Summerlong, the second album, is allowed to be swept along in the moods set by a voice that gives life to each song and perfectly accompanies the stripped back guitar lines that shimmer and roll unencumbered.
Released on the 15th May, Summerlong is purely a, “focus on the music” collection of gorgeous songs, written, produced and played solely and purposely, “without any expectations.”
Explaining its philosophy with a relaxed chuckle, Johnson explains: “I always would threaten to my friends that I’m gonna start a country rock band so I can retire and just play down at the pub every Thursday night during happy hour. I love being able to tour and travel, but I also like the idea of having a local band…” No pressure, no expectations and no obligation. Music just for the fun of it. “More of a social music experience,” he elaborates.
According to those who know him well, and to those who have followed his career closely, this very freedom has given him the space and time and chance to really experiment, both with new arrangement styles and with new instrumentation, any that seemingly take his fancy and enable him to set the mood accordingly; the introduction of lap steel and mandolin for example, and the jaw harp to enhance all the hungrily lean guitar riffs and Johnson’s trademark sloping chords, all embellishing Summerlong with radiant overtures and overtones associated with all our past summers.
The opening track is an uplifting entry point that deliberately contradicts its title, Only Lonely, but it is the guitar that is allowed to set the scene and dictate the mood, and warn of any swings and tribulations that lay ahead, as Empty Bottles immediately slows us back down and yanks us right back to those days of a yesteryear spent lazily reading in the park with only an occasional threat of clouds upon the horizon, and that duly arrive with Real Long Gone, country in feel but with that underpinning of a spiky attitude that rolls throughout the album: it could easily be rock n roll if it so desired, if played at a more urgent tempo. But it seems happy and content in its current attire for now. It knows who it is, at least for now. This contradiction in moods is eagerly explained.
“Both Rose City Band albums were intended to be summer albums, written and recorded in the summer then released in late spring,” Johnson reveals. “But I wasn’t able to finish this one in the summer, and I had to go away on a long fall tour, so that had a big effect on the vibe. I finished writing and recording in December, and the feeling was a bit darker then, so that cast a melancholy shadow on the record. Ultimately, I think it was a good thing, as there’s a mixture of bitter and sweet in the songs. But it was frustrating at the time.
“The title came out of this frustration and is also kind of an inside joke, as I was trying to stretch the summer feeling into December, which was too long, and also futile.”
The result is that Summerlong is the album to evoke moods of that summer day, and yet welcome in the nights that are fast drawing in, in readiness of the autumnal change; wispy and yet haunting. Johnson’s words tell of the intimacy and closeness he desires of that Thursday evening down the pub at happy hour, just him and a guitar, yet always wary of final orders being called at some point.
Summerlong is World Party-like in tempo and then Leithauser-esque with meaningful imagery but with a cutting edge below the surface, or in those gathering shadows of winter. It can be old school country when called upon, yet have that underlying pulse and flow to take the eager listener that next step onward.
The album, as we have come to expect from Ripley Johnson is crafted and expertly bonded together. Arranged simply but beautifully, nothing unnecessarily included to complicate or spoil its mix. It calls out delicately to be discovered, and then cries out in desperate insistence, demanding to be added to your collection this very instant.
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Find Real Long Gone along with other Americana, Folk & Country tunes on our Routes n’ Roots playlist.