The last album from minimalist motorik four-piece Wooden Shjips, 2011’s West, was notable because it was the first time the band had ever stepped into a professional studio to record. The band’s two previous full-lengths, and its lengthy series of EPs and singles, were all recorded in less salubrious environs, but that seemed to be the point with Wooden Shjips. The band’s fuzzed-out and echo-laden psychedelia referenced plenty of unorthodox void-gazers from the past, but more crucial than Wooden Shjips’ lineage was the fact that the band had previously stuck fast to a DIY, underground ethos.
The story goes that when guitarist and vocalist Ripley Johnson formed Wooden Shjips in San Francisco in 2003, he wasn’t looking for fame or fortune — or even necessarily musicians with any talent. His intention was to craft distortion-heavy freak-rock tunes, melding a Velvet Underground trance to mantric garage rock, with additional Krautrock noise added on. Still, talented bandmates is what Johnson ended up with, and alongside bassist Dusty Jermier, drummer Omar Ahsanuddin, and organ player Nash Whalen, Johnson set out on his anarchic quest, making obscure albums replete with droning sojourns, with zero intention of gaining any mainstream success.
Entering a professional studio to record West seemed far too businesslike for a band bent on making lo-fi, sprawling guitar epics. Of course, in the end, we needn’t have been concerned in the slightest, because an increase in production values on West took nothing away from its tripped-out and trance-inducing tracks. If anything, West showed that Wooden Shjips’ trademark willfulness wasn’t going to be tainted by any notion of selling out; no matter the fact that the band’s audience had been growing steadily with each of its releases.
Back to Land, Wooden Shjips’ latest album, sees more significant changes afoot, but another trip to the studio is its least surprising feature. Firstly, there’s the fact that the band is not entirely San Francisco-based anymore, with Ahsanuddin and Johnson exiting the city for more viridescent pastures. That’s a major shift for a band that was tied to San Francisco’s history of outsider rock. However, the good news is that Ahsanuddin and Johnson merely moved up the line to Oregon, a location also noted for indulging plenty of eccentric artists of a similarly hallucinogenic-friendly disposition.
More importantly, the move to Oregon has resulted in some marked adjustments in the band’s sound. Inspired by the change in environment, Back to Land still finds Wooden Shjips gazing into galaxies of strum and thrum, but there’s a far stronger presence of melody and, well, sunlight, in the band’s songwriting this time around.
Lushness is not a word you might expect to find in reference a Wooden Shjips release, but there’s a real sense of just that on Back to Land. Loamy earth-rock is here as much as space-rock, and notably, acoustic instrumentation is woven through the band’s electric pursuits. The title of “These Shadows” might hint at grim shadings, but along with “Back to Land”, and the beautifully organic and harmonious guitar glaze of album closer “Everybody Knows”, both luminescence and sky-high wonder are to be found on the album.
Songs such as “Ghouls”, “In the Roses”, and “Other Stars” still provide the groove and grunt — with fuzzy guitars, swirling organ, propulsive percussion, and murmuring and mysterious vocals. However, there are also wide open spaces — and elements not heard (and vistas not seen) on any previous Wooden Shjips release. That’s resulted in the most colorful and accessible album from the band, which is, obviously, a surprising change of tone.
The heavy hypnotism of the band’s past work, and those deep and dark canals of sound it dug to carry you away, are reduced in size here. Certainly, the ceaseless Loop-via-vSpacemen 3 momentum has been curtailed for a mellower and more mellifluous vibe overall. That’s not to say the band isn’t locking into a groove or digging psychedelic furrows, and the members are still riding the sonic waves. The Doors, Neu!, and the 13th Floor Elevators all get a mention along the way, as you’d expect, but there are also bright meadows, moonbeams through the treetops, and hope, love and probably even group hugs present on Back to Land.
Is that going to be a problem? Well, for some it might. The unrelenting narcotic nod of Wooden Shjips was one of its most striking features. And while Back to Land isn’t a wholly radical departure from the band’s signature sound, it is an unexpected one. On the plus side, the 11 days the band spent in Portland’s Jackpot Recording Studio shaping Back to Land has resulted in the most nuanced recording from the band. While it might feature more hazy Amon Düül II pastoralism than outright Guru Guru trippiness this time round, it’s a risk worth taking, and it’s one that successfully finds the middle ground between leaving enough grit to sate fans and allowing the band to progress.
Ultimately, Back to Land is a gorgeous album. It’s been baked in the sun, swept by euphonious breezes, and finished off with a glistening layer of silvery mist. It might not be the album you were expecting at all, but it’s certainly one that proves Wooden Shjips’ free spirit still reigns.