Intricate though it is, the jpeg cover art for Fatso Jetson and Herba Mate‘s Early Shapes split on Go Down Records does little justice to the physical reality of the finished product. Pressed to limited white vinyl with screenprinted covers or available in a gorgeous fold-out digi-box with fractal designs and liner notes printed on a kind of psychedelic gatefold, Early Shapes is impressive both to hold and to hear, comprising three tracks from the Californian desert legends and four from the Italian upstart trio. For Fatso Jetson – the lineup of guitarist/vocalist Mario Lalli (also of Yawning Man), guitarist Dino Von Lalli, bassist Larry Lalli and drummer Tony Tornay (now also playing with Brant Bjork) – it’s their second partnership with Italy’s Go Down Records, the first having been the limited run Live at Maximum Festival (review here) earlier this year, and their second recent split behind a 2013 collaboration with Yawning Man. In Herba Mate‘s case, Early Shapes is the first I’ve heard from them since their engagingly atmospheric 2009 debut, The Jellyfish is Dead and the Hurricane is Coming (review here), the Bolognese three-piece of bassist/vocalist Alessandro Trere, guitarist Andrea Barlotti and drummer Ermes Piancastelli having spent the last couple years playing shows and generally refining what was an already well-directed take on desert rock. Vinyl-ready at 38 minutes, Early Shapes is hypnotically jammed and sweetly melodic, the two acts not so much competing in the richness of what they do as celebrating the vibes they’re both so able to conjure musically. All the better for the front-to-back listen of the CD, which is consistent in its mood while still showcasing the distinct personalities of the two groups. Frankly, it’s a pairing that I thought would work well when I first heard about it and which works better than I anticipated.
They’re further tied together by the fact that both bands end their portion of Early Shapes with an eight-plus-minute (mostly) instrumental jam, and though Herba Mate‘s “Desert Inn II” feels more plotted than Fatso Jetson‘s “Nyquilt” — particularly because it complements and builds off “Desert Inn I,” which begins the trio’s side of the split — both resonate with an open creativity. Fatso Jetson‘s other inclusions, “Living all over You” and “Long Deep Breath” build on the notion of them not only as mainstays of the CA desert, but as an essential piece of that puzzle along with Yawning Man, Kyuss, and so on, both in sound and personnel. Mathias Schneeberger, who also recorded the opening duo, contributes Rhodes piano, and Adam Harding (Dumb Numbers) offers guitar and vocals to “Nyquilt,” while singer-songwriter Abby Travis guests vocally on “Long Deep Breath.” Gary Arce of Yawning Man is purported to also have contributed guitar to Fatso Jetson‘s tracks, and I’d going by the tone of “Long Deep Breath,” I’d believe it, but there’s no mention of him in the liner. Still, “Living all over You” begins the split with its most memorable push, a weighted groove unfolding topped by a serene, echoing vocal from Mario, far off from most of the jazzy spasms of Fatso Jetson‘s last full-length, 2010′s underrated Archaic Volumes (review here), but consistent stylistically with their past all the same and building to a satisfying apex before “Long Deep Breath” gets moving on the foundation of Tornay‘s drums, more open in atmosphere, but still cohesive, a chorus and bridge made even more gorgeous by Travis‘ voice joining Mario‘s before a buzzsaw solo takes hold. A mood only bolstered by “Nyquilt,” if this kind of inclusive, ambient spirit is where Fatso Jetson might be headed directionally for their next album, then it can’t get here fast enough. Perhaps most impressive about the tracks is that no matter where Fatso Jetson seem to head sound-wise, they still sound so distinctly like themselves, and they seem to be in full command of their aesthetic, not so much conforming to the desert rock style they helped create as taking those elements with them on a creative journey outside genre bounds.
It would be folly for Herba Mate to try to beat Fatso Jetson at their own game, but fortunately the three-piece are off on another trip. Trere is somewhat more aggressive vocally, but not by much, and the heavy roll that Herba Mate enact on “Desert Inn I” is pretty telling of what they have on offer in general, though following the original “Dance Dance Dance,” they surprise with a cover of Core‘s “Way Down,” adding tonal depth to the punkish ’90s heaviness of the New Jersey band’s original version. That and “Dance Dance Dance” are shorter, which accounts for Herba Mate‘s four tracks as opposed to Fatso Jetson‘s three, but the spirit of the material — which was captured live at Go Down‘s studio with some additional recording/mixing later — is fluid and engrossing, a sudden stop late in “Dance Dance Dance” being the only really jarring moment, and one clearly designed as such. Even the transition between the rush of “Way Down” and the languid heavy psych of “Desert Inn II” is natural, the latter feeling like the return to and expansion on the first installment that it is. Herba Mate‘s is a welcome return, and the jam-minded sensibilities, as well as the laid back approach they take to the release overall — including the Core cover seems to speak to an anything-goes mentality that suits them almost as much as the warm, organic production with which these songs are presented — speak to a confidence in what they’re doing that’s bound to serve them well as they move forward as much as it already serves them well here. I don’t know what either their plans or those of Fatso Jetson might be, but the quality of output from both bands makes Early Shapes feel like more than a simple stopgap en route to larger standalone releases, and whether one takes it as two distinct vinyl sides or listens straight through front-to-back to the CD, there’s really no interruption of flow, Herba Mate and Fatso Jetson pairing remarkably well for the sincerity of their approaches and the the immersion of what they create. It’s not often a release with two different bands recorded under multiple circumstances comes across as smoothly as Early Shapes, but there’s a likemindedness at root here that makes it barely a “split” at all.