Moon Duo is the project of Wooden Shjips guitarist Erik “Ripley” Johnson in collaboration with Sanae Yamada. Escape is their first full-length, after a couple of EPs on the Shjips’ Sick Thirst imprint and the taste-making Captured Tracks label. It offers four tracks in under 30 minutes. Escape is an LP in the old-school sense of the word, before CD bloat made every record an 80-minute endurance test. The Moon Duo formula starts with a rudimentary drum-and-bass foundation, which is augmented by hazy, echo-laden vocals and distorted guitar. The fundamentals are solid, but with each track pushing the seven-minute mark, Escape — despite being slightly longer than an episode of The Office — is a tedious listen.
With song titles like “Motorcycle, I Love You” and Ripley’s deadpan Jim Morrison impersonation, Moon Duo comes off like a psychedelic parody band as opposed to the genuine article. All the ingredients are in place for a hypnotic trip — the motorik rhythm, the moody vocals buried deep in the mix, the fuzzed-out guitar — but Escape lacks a sense of urgency. “Motorcycle” kicks off the record in decent form, with a tug to the rhythm section that other tracks lack and an opaque, mysterious vibe. As Escape continues, however, the songs open up a bit more to the album’s detriment. “In The Trees” is a formless melange of tentative guitar gestures and half-hearted vocals over a rhythm section that doesn’t deviate from the previous track.
“Stumbling 22nd St.” opens the second half of the album with an insistent keyboard passage and Ripley intoning unintelligible lyrics over by-the-numbers garage rock. This approach may have been sexy and dangerous 40 years ago, but here it just comes off as silly. Escape ends on a whimper with the title track, a tinny drum beat underscoring a sunny, straightforward pop vocal. This lighter sound might have served as a refreshing change of pace, but an opportunity to break out of the tiresome Moon Duo formula is buried by the familiar sound of fuzzy guitar noodling and layers of effects. Moon Duo’s music is intermittently appealing if you’re on the same wavelength as they are, but Escape feels like a typical side project: a middling collection of underdeveloped compositions that posses some qualities of other, better songs but ultimately lack conviction and vitality.