Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, the first Thursday of every new month on KEXP.org.
“It is a Sunday morning
Dawn is starting to awaken
Sky is burning
New day rising in the West”
I’ve been sitting on the same stretch of I-5 between the 520 Bridge exit and the I-90 interchange for about an hour; it’s the hottest day of the year (so far) and the engine of my 2000 Nissan sings the loud bellow of a city bus. Ripley Johnson sings on “Feel of Love” about holding a wild rose; the memory of an aura reading from a past lover takes me to a different hot summer day. She told me I had a very thick stem and very large, sharp thorns. Those sharp thorns are there to protect beautiful, delicate things from harm.
The breezy sounds of Rose City Band's newest opus Earth Trip float along the wildly fluctuating cool/lukewarm provided by the car’s air conditioning unit when I’d rather blast Conway the Machine and punch out all the windows.
It just so happens that a crucial stretch of I-5 South is closed for repairs on the hottest day the city has seen (so far) since 1945. Apparently, this is only the fourth day in history temperatures here have scaled above 100 degrees Fahrenheit; the third day was yesterday. Obviously Johnson’s voice—which sounds here like a summer blanket just as you’re laying it out on a green patch of grass—and the lulling tones of his guitar playing is doing nothing to silence my kvetching.
Patrick Ewing scowls on the center of my t-shirt; if I attempt anything more strenuous than an annoyed frown, I might have to drive the rest of the way home through blurry eyes and heat exhaustion.
As the temperatures rose since Thursday, I had been basking in the spoils of a post-pandemic summer; grilled fish tacos and being introduced to a fellow arts non-profit worker my girlfriend has known since Jewish Day School and his schoolteacher wife—chatting about pandemic-teaching, raising kids, raising teenagers, and binge-watching Six Feet Under while hundreds of thousands of people in the United States have died from COVID-19. It’s the type of show that makes most people think about death differently, but makes me think about it the same way as I have since my parents died: Everyone is connected through death, because although everybody reaches the end differently, the end still comes for everybody.
It's funny how heat and death are so crazily intertwined in our consciousness. It makes an agnostic like me wonder if there really is a hell below.
Ripley Johnson could very well be the contemporary American West Coast’s most significant guitar hero.
Wooden Shjips—his longest-running musical outfit—took hard psych to blistering lengths before stretching their legs over a very specific strain of sprawling freeway stretches. Johnson’s group with his keyboardist wife Sanae Yamada, appropriately titled Moon Duo, evokes Alan Vega being possessed by the spirit of Bob Weir. Originally conceived as a completely anonymous project, Rose City Band (a nod to Johnson’s home of most of the past decade, Portland, Oregon) meanders in the breeze of pedal steel guitar and mandolin.
I’ve always referred to Wooden Shjips as “Crazy Horse on the Autobahn,” but Rose City Band leans more into Neil Young symbolism, trading the cocaine for magic mushrooms or the Grateful Dead’s free-flowing, easy vibes, the profound love of jamming through extended instrumental stretches.
Following 2019’s self-titled effort and last year’s Summerlong, all three albums—released either just before on right on the precipice of summer—produce an ideal musical accompaniment to the Pacific Northwest’s warm months. There is an element to Johnson’s guitar playing which feels nearly conversational; it’s loose, sometimes discursive, interesting without having to be too knotty, complex, or portentous like other guitar players worth their weight in effects pedals.
Specializing in motorik and other terms people who don’t write about music have never heard of, Johnson has specialized in using two- and four-bar motifs as canvases on which to paint sprawling compositions, rich in texture and tone and substantive in a way many of his peers are not. Rose City Band is in part a tribute to his Connecticut youth, his parents spinning records by the aforementioned Young and Dead along with Van Morrison.
On the languid balladry of sparkling opener “Silver Roses,” Johnson sings of getting called off the road, his life as a veteran traveler hitting the vapor wall of the COVID pandemic; the silent killer. Living in Oregon for several years, he connected to his love of woodland life by taking sunrise bike rides and baths outside.
Spending his teenage years tripping in the woods, Earth Trip evokes that feeling, the dreamy shift in atmosphere when the psychedelics are just starting to kick in.
Last year, Johnson spoke to Aquarium Drunkard—one of the last shining vestiges from the mp3 blog explosion of the mid-2000s—about the impetus of Rose City Band: “I’d been threatening to do a country rock record forever. I talked about it forever. People wanted me to stop talking about it.” Though he doesn’t actually consider Rose City Band to be country-rock, it’s just like his other music ventures; an iteration of form specifically of his vision and uniquely suited to his talents.
A Friday night rooftop show featuring Wild Powwers and Mirrorgloss at Alma Mater, the skyline of Tacoma, talented musicians I’ve known for the past year but had yet to meet, the charm and easy smile of Aramis Johnson, the lovely sight of my girlfriend wearing a resplendent blue floral print romper. A Saturday punctuated by an important tarot reading in the sanctuary of an air-conditioned Ghost Gallery (it’s funny how malls have made a serious comeback in this heatwave); hurts from the past coupled with the magic from a future household. In less than two months I’ll be living in Seattle, living with a romantic partner for the very first time. Lots of new beginnings. A night in while my partner had a night out—a world title match and breaking in my astral transit-focused new tarot deck (courtesy of Ghost Gallery, of course) while my love laughed through a drag comedy show and submerged herself in lake water while nightswimming with one of our brilliant friends.
“Give me the warm embraces, not a telephone
I need love, sweet love”
The hottest day of the heatwave has me drinking a gallon of water, like we’re apparently supposed to be doing every day? I’m drinking a gallon of water like a bodybuilder.
Venus is in Leo, just like the night I was born, but I’m not feeling extravagantly amorous. I feel the heat 50 Cent rapped about in 2003, where that was a good enough reason to murder someone. By this time, it’s 10:30 pm, still damn near 85 degrees outside—the skylights in my rented wing of the house in which I stay makes my room way fucking hotter—and the muffled explosions of fireworks popping in the distance nearly sends one of my famously crabby moods over the edge.
The popcorn maker in the sky kept firing well past midnight as I slept with the fan on in the window, all the windows open, under no sheets or covers. If I were equipped to engage in some vigilante justice, I absolutely would.
Lonely place after lonely place; being surrounded by people but still feeling lonely. I used to feel this way when I was younger; as adulthood crept in I would feel smothered and suffocated by people even if I had been alone for four days. Now I enjoy the company of others in even-handed moderation, fighting against my rather excessive need for solitude knowing I’m entering a new chapter where someone else will always be there. I haven’t had such a thing in all that healthy a supply throughout my life.
I’m watching the water glisten along the other side of Commencement Bay, writing these words seated atop a picnic table near Browns Point Lighthouse. It’s 10 am and the pebbles on the shore are already heating up under the sun. It was 75 degrees when I left my house a half-hour ago. There are kids splashing around in the water, their tiny hands repeatedly smacking the shallow roof of the bay, tickled by the water hitting their faces.
To be honest, dear reader, I’ve been beset with a personal betrayal I’ve spent the past few weeks—and to a degree, the past several years—trying to process. So to end the final day of this heatwave portion of early summer, I took a drive and left my phone at home. Not suffering from the depression that almost killed me, just thinking. Betrayal cuts through so deeply because, apparently, it’s easier than we thought to pierce someone’s heart by stabbing them in the back. I sweat profusely while I consider excommunicating myself from someone who I basically grew up with, someone I loved.
In a way, Earth Trip is an album about having the space to contemplate situations without easy solutions. Today will be yesterday soon enough, and that collection of 2250 days you’ve kept in your pocket is getting heavy, so you might as well throw them away.
“Wanna see a new dawning
Run your fingers through the night
The sun is calling
Fear is dying in the light”
The calm of Rose City Band’s newest opus comes from a need for comfort through its creator; exactly the reason I have repeatedly come back to it in the punishing hours of this heatwave. Much of the music I love the most is challenging, confrontational, sometimes brilliant in its utter hostility. But the things I’ve been going through in these sweltering first few days of summer have required me to retreat to more peaceful musical environs.
In the golden glow of Tuesday night at a cool 77 degrees, I hear the crackle from my blunt as the solo from “World is Turning” kicks in. My box fan hums in the window after roaring non-stop for the past several days. Longtime readers of this column remember when I used to be coy and say I was steaming vegetables. As I ruminate on having survived the oppressive heat both outdoors in the passages of my soul, smoldering in the feeling of being betrayed—its particular hurt coming from the fact that loyalty is sometimes very cheap to the people you love—I listen to Ripley Johnson sing of weed and coffee and tripping in the woods. I ride along as the shuffle of the music backing him takes the truck down the road.
Soon we’ll be rolling into tomorrow; the day will be a little cooler and my emotions will turn back to my work, back to these words I continue to find myself obsessed with. These words are starting to carry me into a new life, and the worlds in my mind will continue to wait to be excavated.
It’s tough not to get serious Kate Bush vibes from Mt. Fog’s sublime debut record. An operatic lilt catches in Carolyn B.’s singing voice, sure, but there’s also an air of mysticism in her iteration of half-dreamlike/half-haunting synth-pop. Guided by her classical training in violin and singing traditional Balkan music, “Forest folktronica” is what she calls it. Ethereal tones pop up from the shadows all over Guide to the Unusual, but synth is not synonymous with synthetic here; everything feels as organic as the dirt and twigs under our feet. On opener “One Piece Puzzle,” Carolyn sings of wanting to be a gas cloud in outer space; on closer “Be Extremely Normal (Do Nothing),” she sings of wanting to save the day. Guide to the Unusual is an otherworldly trek through the caverns and open spaces of the universe, borne of its creator singing to herself on rainy walks; an engrossing search for the self by stepping in and out a multitude of worlds.
It’s been a minute since Bruce Leroy—part of a small handful of the very best rappers in Tacoma’s bountiful rap scene—has dropped a project. Outside of dropping singles here and there for the past couple years, he’s been busy raising kids, training the community to be nice with their hands, and assiduously criticizing the culture of performative wokeness on social media. (As someone who is often too real for Twitter, I can relate.)
But the man named after the protagonist of The Last Dragon recently dropped the Trussone-produced Minerals and has very lightly hinted at more music to come soon. You shouldn’t need a veteran music journalist with a decade of skin in the game to tell you the Minerals EP is a must-listen for anyone who won’t settle for less than quality writing in their rap music, but here we are anyway. Leroy keeps a network of antisocial niggas, compares you to the background singers of the Jackson 5, assures you don’t know him like Michael Buffer, and invites Porter Ray (the Ghostface Killah to his Raekwon) to drop a marvelous verse over the twilight bounce of “4 A.M.” Let this be a warning to all y’all Tacoma rappers using YouTube lingo: the reaper is coming back around.
SuperCoze is the brainchild of guitar-pop impresario Cody Choi, who dropped last year’s wonderful Rainy Day Sunshine the very same day Governor Inslee issued the first round of pandemic restrictions. Their sound is a day-glo painting of surfy pop music; like Tacocat reeking of indica and microdosing MDMA on the beach. New single “Happy Mind,” brightened immensely by Choi’s clairon croon and swoon, was their partner’s birthday present; written, recorded, and produced by Choi themselves. This indelibly sweet three-minute morsel shuffles through healing from codependency and—as they recently told Wussy— “healing from being stuck inside and having to force your way through your feelings.”
Even though I did all of that handwringing last time Throwaway Style was published, I’ve attended two shows since I wrote last month’s column. I’m on deck for two more and the month has barely started. So, fuck it. We’re bringing back Live and Loud.
Martin Douglas chronicles a bummer summer while listening to the Seattle beatmaker's debut instrumental collection on repeat.
Wooden Shjips' fifth studio album possesses a calm and levity which belies the near-apocalyptic summer which inspired it. Frontman Ripley Johnson spoke to KEXP about V. and the psychic healing of making music when the world around you is quite literally on fire.
Every week, KEXP features a new local artist with an interview and suggested tracks for where to start. This week, we feature Portland psych outfit Moon Duo, who play Bumbershoot this Friday at 6:40 PM on the KEXP stage.