Every song by Wooden Shjips starts in the middle then resolutely locks into a groove which basically never ends. Well perhaps fades to black. And when I say locks in I mean like the way a crocodile might lock its incisors into you as it rolls over and over in the swamps until you give in, to be enveloped by the water and inevitable surrender. So, ostensibly Back To Land is “just” another Wooden Shjips album. It’s a deconstruction of rock music to a basic core, limited chord progression, vocals as an added texture, a driving Hammond organ and barely a nod to verse or chorus. On one level, it’s basically punk in ethos, but in terms of musical vibe this leans more to the Grateful Dead and Haight-Astbury than the Stooges and Motor City. Normally such hippy-ish tendencies would have made me run to the hills – the Hollywood ones being the closest to their literal roots in San Francisco. However, as a Shjips convert and completest, they have pretty much led the vanguard of new psych, and once I’m into a Shjips record, and its hypnotic and sometimes blissfully soporific effect, I’m transported to another place, somewhere out West their last brilliant album, and over the Golden Gate Bridge. I’d say if it weren’t for these guys and their wilful obtuseness there wouldn’t have been such great records by The Horrors, TOY, Tame Impala, Unknown Mortal Orchestra the list could go on. I would even stick by neck out, a neck that’s nodding along to their inestimable eight legged groove machine, and say they have influenced the more motorik direction of Grinderman and henceforth this year’s epic Bad Seeds record’s more singular moments.
Watch the title track video
Back To Land is Wooden Shjips sixth long player, and as the title suggests they may be coming in a new direction, back in from the Bay, or possibly back in from outer space, both figuratively and literally in the case that frontman Ripley Johnson and drummer Omar Ahsanuddin moved from San Francisco to Oregon. With it there is more detectable warmth, and the drone is even more lush and expansive.
They have, in particular on the song ‘Everybody Knows’, whisper it, even delved into a further chord, plus on this song and original single “These Shadows” brought out Johnson’s vocals to sit higher in the maelstrom. This is further compounded that on the ubiquitous “deluxe edition” there’s a barely quieter “acoustic” version of said song, still driven along by the irresistible Hammond choogle but which exposes Johnson’s voice even more. The revelation here is that he can sing, he’s not just another plate in the tectonic shift. With a timbre that’s akin to Neil Young, it suddenly makes more sense of the band name (almost), “Wooden Ships” being a Crosby Stills & Nash song, lest we forget that wilfully obtuse “j” in the mix. With that and the dare I say it hip shaking as well as neck flexing pseudo danceability of the song “Ghouls”, which points to the more beats orientated music of Johnson’s side project Moon Duo, this is the lightest, most melodic and earthiest they’ve ever been. 8.2/10
Check out the ‘Everybody Knows’ video