Release Date: Sep 13, 2011
Record label: Thrill Jockey
Wooden Shjips are well practiced in the art of turning you on. West is a striking meld of buzzy, fuzzy riff-rock and aquatic reverb overdose, strutting casually around the block on “Crossing” and outrunning the evening surf on “Lazy Bones” and “Looking Out.” All the songs suggest heavy doses of California psychedelia were administered to the band members throughout their lives, and the album’s cover shot of the Golden Gate Bridge confirms the Sonic Boom-produced West as a tribute to this wonderful genre. Take out the organ, slow down the drums and you might confuse a few songs with Bay Area band Sleep’s legendary Dopesmoker album.
After two albums and ten EPS, singles, etc., it's fair to ask if we really need another Wooden Shjips record. The short answer is yes. Bandleader/guitarist Ripley Johnson and his mates have used the D.I.Y. approach for everything Wooden Shjips has released -- until now. On their Thrill Jockey debut ….
It's five years now since the sprawling 'Shrinking Moon For You' announced the arrival of San Francisco's Wooden Shjips, yet they remain a largely unknown quantity outside the realms of ATP devotees and a few hardcore stoners. Indeed, mention the name 'Ripley Johnson' and some might reply with the name of his other project "Moon Duo!", which is of course, correct, but also merely the tip of an iceberg. While his outfit with beau Sanae Yamada has yielded a fantastic catalogue of records in its own right - culminating in this year's excellent Mazes - his day job - if that's the right term - has produced a pretty near flawless collection of material since 2006.
How important is the idea of the song to Wooden Shjips? Not at all, judging from the last track on their third album. Initially, it seems Rising is just more fuzzed guitars and narcotised vocals. Then it becomes apparent the percussion is backward: neat trick. Oh, and the voice is backward. In fact ….
When you're reading about San Francisco space-rockers Wooden Shjips, certain other bands' names come up over and over again: the Stooges, Suicide, Hawkwind, Spacemen 3. On a certain level, that's inevitable. There's nothing new about what Wooden Shjips do, and we can hear the quotation marks in the band's music even if they didn't intend to put them there.
The knock on Wooden Shjips is that if you've heard one of their songs, you've heard them all. And that might be the knee-jerk reaction to their latest release West, but dig through the layers of distortion, feedback, fuzz and reverb and there's more than meets the ear. Scoff if you must, but the band has opened its scope, geographically speaking at least, since the days when it once (assumedly) demanded "Dance, California" on a 7-inch single, but also sonically.
Rock and roll doesn’t progress; it repeats. Each style or sound gets caught in amber, only to be revived sometime later. Like Wooden Shjips :their thumping drone never changes from album to album—but more importantly, their sound recreates an old sound, though arguably imagined from the future, combining heavy ‘60s psych with repetitive ‘70s krautrock.
Oh Ripley Johnson, you greedy bugger. It’s not enough for you that you’ve already frazzled our noggins with the relentless psychedelic rock of [b]‘Mazes’[/b], the album you made with your paramour Sanae Yamada as Moon Duo, is it? Now you’ve returned with another slice of down‘n’dirty space-rock.But it’s impossible not to bow down to [b]‘West’[/b], the third album proper from San Francisco troupe [a]Wooden Shjips[/a]. From the visceral splurge of [b]‘Lazy Bones’[/b] to the laser-guided grooves of [b]‘Flight’[/b], each looping riff is hammered into submission until it stretches out for miles and miles.
At first listen, all seven songs on Wooden Shjips’ West sound pretty much the same. While the album — a clean, well-balanced, and lucid studio release — represents a departure from the lo-fi sound established on a wide collection of self-produced singles, EPs, albums, and compilations, there is a definite lack of timbral variety from track to track. The combination of omnipresent distorted guitars, disembodied vocals projected on a second plane, deeply buried organs, Hawkwind-esque solos, and echoey effects is certainly interesting, but the timbral consistency gives the same color to every track, thus stripping individual song identity and leaving a monochromatic, nondescript impression.
Wooden Shjips aren’t exactly revivalists, but they’re a band to show your dad when he makes that despicable “rock is dead“ claim. In the San Francisco psych rockers’ sound, you can hear traces of Spacemen 3, Hawkwind, and even The Doors. That retro sensibility is one of the Shjips’ greatest assets, but it has an inherent defect: The band sometimes appear to believe that it’s OK to recycle and recycle without developing anything new.
The basis of manifest destiny was an idea that through spiritual entitlement, the United States was fated to expand all the way west, until land met ocean. A destiny that ultimately proved to be very considerable was driven behind the notion that it was ‘meant to be’. For many, travelling west continues to bear significance simply because once you get to the west coast swing of California and I must imagine Oregon and Washington, everything feels a little bit different.
San Francisco stoner-rockers crawl sun-blind from Spacemen 3’s shadow. Andrew Perry 2011 California’s Bay Area has latterly reinvigorated its late-60s heritage as Mecca for exploratory psychedelic rock, with free-jamming nutjobs such as Sun Araw and Carlton Melton once more turning on, tuning in, but most importantly dropping the kind of far-out and mind-expanding recordings no-one could rightly claim to have heard before. San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips have made more headway on this side of the Atlantic than most, with a slightly more conventional, even earthbound variant.
The American West and “all of the mythology, romanticism and idealism that it embodies” are the themes at the heart of Wooden Shjips’ third LP, West. Those themes are more abstract in West though since they are not conveyed by the lyrics. The backbone of every song is a heavily layered groove of fuzz guitar, organ and echoes. Drums keep Swiss-time precision with little to no variation.
When I spoke to Wooden Shjips' Ripley Johnson for the Quietus last year, in an interview focusing on his other band Moon Duo, he concluded by considering the different directions he saw each group heading in. After musing that the next Shjips album might take after Neil Young's classic recordings with Crazy Horse, he revealed that he was about to leave his long-term home of San Francisco for Colorado. He imagined that, as a result, he would come to think of the Shjips as being "the California band…" Well, here is that next Shjips album, and sure enough California is obviously still on Ripley's mind.