[11 September 2011]
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. Though the band hasn’t necessarily evolved, it has gotten better, or has at least made better albums. West, the Shjips’ latest album, is the best yet. Though it takes a few listens to unlock this superlative—since at first you might be tempted to merely think, “this just sounds like Wooden Shjips”—the energy and composition on this set of seven songs pushes Wooden Shjips from being a good but derivative example of a style, to a paragon of stoned drone.
If you listen to a few Wooden Shjips records in a row, each song begins to blend together. Their heavy droning raveups tend to build from the same rhythm, using the same alternating pattern of vocals and guitar or organ freakout. However, this blurring of songs into one eternal drone speaks to a remarkable consistency. Wooden Shjips isn’t the band to explore new vistas of rock experimentation, but rather the band that delivers exactly what you expect, a welcome injection of moody barely restrained rock and roll. West is the first album recorded fully in a studio rather than pieced together from rehearsal tapes. It is also the best Wooden Shjips release to date, not only because the recording is more vibrant and varied from song to song, but because the songs themselves are the strongest set put together yet—similar to their other albums, but better. (An interesting side note: Sonic Boom from Spectrum and Spacemen 3 mastered the album.)
The idea behind West is precisely exploring new territory, so what they lack in actual ground covered they make up with mythology. It’s a meditation on American westward expansion and its attendant legends, which are essential elements in the DNA of rock and roll. This explains the image of the Golden Gate Bridge on the album’s cover. The band is based in San Francisco, though its members hail from the East, a displacement that could illuminate their infatuation with the promised land. Most importantly, the West determines the aesthetic Wooden Shjips explores. Their style derives from the LA and San Francisco bands of the ‘60s, though their brand of heavy rock dispenses with the flowery side of the latter city in favor of the darker, worse trips.
The best way to describe Wooden Shjips might be a Krautrock Doors; they use driving rhythm and repetition to set up loose exploratory guitar solos. Ripley Johnson, who plays guitar and sings, recalls a heavily sedated and possibly nervous Jim Morrison in his low but restrained delivery. The chorus melody of a song like “Lazy Bones” comes straight off Waiting for the Sun. Johnson also takes notes from the Doors in his guitar playing, sounding like a less fluent Robbie Krieger on the final solo of “Crossing.”
Still the band explores somewhat new territory on a few numbers, speeding up the tempo or adding in a chord or two. These boundary pushers make a couple of album highlights. “Home” starts out with three main chords right away, whereas a more typical Wooden Shjips song winds around one main chord, before introducing any changes for the melody (and still following a typical rock progression). But this song starts right out with a traditional progression, a solid ‘70s sound that brings to mind the breakdown in Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, though the ‘70s LA scene doesn’t create the overall feel of the song. Instead, Wooden Shjips take this progression into much loved Sabbath-induced stoner territory. What would be typical for another band is not a bad changeup for Wooden Shjips. It allows them to find another kind of heaviness for their sound. On the other side of the spectrum is “Looking Out”, which goes back to a ‘50s style in a danceable boogie punctuated by right hand organ chords. This is the Wooden Shjips’ attempt at a garage revamp of the oldies, à la Flaming Groovies. The higher energy (which they also explore on “Lazy Bones,” a relatively peppy number) suits them.
The stoner thing may be done to death and Wooden Shjips certainly run the risk of boredom, by plying a trademarked sound and staying mainly in a midtempo groove. On the other hand, Johnson’s side project, Moon Duo, which began as an idea heavily derivative of his Shjips material, found on this year’s release a way to infuse this predictable pattern of melody and improvisation with some sparkling pop hooks. As Johnson returns to the Shjips, he’s also improved his songwriting while not messing with the overall aesthetic. It’s not new, but it is better. Wooden Shjips shoot straight into that barely circulating heart of rhythm and blues and reopen a vein of noise that it is difficult not to pump along with.