Erik “Ripley” Johnson’s spends his time away from the psychedelically-inclined Wooden Shjips playing a retro paramour in Moon Duo. He and his bandmate Sanae Yamada have been clicking along at an album-per-year pace — and rather discreetly so at that — since their formation in 2009. Circles, their third full-length in said streak, consistently supplies the shiny simplicity of their earlier work, while eschewing the element of surprise.
In the context of rock and roll, which is undoubtedly what Moon Duo are going for, Circles feels like akin to a tinker toy set. Turns out Johnson can build a solid structure from these rudimentary pieces. The use of texture is emphasized over form, impression over complexity. “Free Action” is perhaps the best example of this, wherein pedal effects and strophic forms lay the groundwork for a terrifically rollicking square-dance boogie. Johnson’s hushed vocals conjure up influences as diverse as Low-era Bowie and Liars’ Angus Andrew, though his informality doesn’t exactly inspire.
Still, Circles always manages to sound impressive; every arrangement glows. If you remove the veneer of the production, this becomes a set of average, old-time rock tracks. Moon Duo’s love for drone and cyclic songs structures continues, with the pop component even more vibrant than on last year’s Mazes. Tinges of psych and krautrock weave their way in occasionally as well, particularly when there’s a little more time to sprawl out, like on “Rolling Out.” There are other moments where the musical relics are clung on to unrelentingly, and rather ungracefully at that. The solo that plays out the title track would have been considered tame by 1960s standards. “Trails” is pretty and spacious, but also totally rudderless. There is also a handful of sleek, modern pop tracks. “I Can See” uses a programmed drumbeat, boy/girl vocal dynamics and a hollowed-out organ to craft a dark piece of synthpop, not unlike what you might expect from the now-defunct Handsome Furs. “I Been Gone” takes a similar approach, with a peppier tempo and lurid instrumentation.
But there isn’t just repetition within the songs, there’s repetition across the album. “Sparks” and “Dance Pt. 3” both use a decongested root-3-root progression, popularized in songs like Nirvana’s “About A Girl.” Since these tracks appear back-to-back on the album, this fact is highlighted perhaps a little more than it needs to be. Circles is dark and sexy, but also more consistent in terms of aesthetic than quality, it neither underwhelms nor excites. It’s just solid and efficient, a period piece with modern trimmings. These slick, fizzing grooves will worm their way into your brain of you let them, just don’t go in expecting any fireworks.