Believe it or not, San Fran psych outfit Wooden Shjips have only existed for seven years. A cursory listen to any of their previous three LPs would have you believe that they’ve been peddling their ominous walls of space-drone since, ooh, about 1973. Their predilection has generally been for lengthy, Hawkwind-style jams underpinned by detuned Velvet Underground meets Crazy Horse guitars, with vocals taking a back seat. At their best – particularly in a live setting – these behemoth-songs can be exhilarating, but the Shjips (the ‘j’ is silent, in case you were wondering) have obviously decided it’s time to move on.
New album Back To Land inclines towards comparative brevity, with an average song length of about five minutes. The cosmic chug is still there, but it is distilled, and as a result many of the songs seem more structured. Perhaps conversely, this newfound concision leads to an album that is more complete, more rounded, and somehow bigger than previous works.
Much of this has to do with subtle sonic changes. The music has a different feel, and this may in part be down to a change in geography – Shjips mainstays Ripley Johnson and Omar Ahsanuddin upped sticks and moved north to Oregon shortly before recording and cite this as the major influence on their new sound. As the album title suggests, the band have forsaken their trademark warped celestial travelling in favour of something more channelled.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the vocals. Ripley’s voice isn’t made for soaring melodicism, and as ever it is set right back in the mix. But his singing seems to have taken on a new confidence – and with it a new warmth – borne out by the more vocal-friendly arrangements. The title track sets the tone with simple riffs and cracked vocals full of fuzz and echo, and just when you think the noodling is about to begin the final verse kicks in and you realise that what we have here is technically a pop song. Ruins has the feel of a brisk, modal variety of krautrock, with a distinct groove, and Ghouls ups the pace further with swirling, lysergic organ and fried guitars. These Shadows begins with a suitably distorted riff before the introduction of – believe it or not – an acoustic guitar. At other times the quick-fire brutality of the playing is reminiscent of Black Sabbath at their most succinct, albeit knocked off with a proto-punk minimalism. The final song Everybody Knows is the biggest departure of all with a melody that veers closer to Britpop than stoner rock.
But despite the changes, lovers of Wooden Shjips’ first three records won’t be disappointed. The gut-churning psychedelia remains: the fuzz, the feedback, the relentless organ chords. What we get on top of this is the sound of a band with a fresh focus, set to win over a whole new set of fans.
Wooden Shjips – Flight (Live at Thrill Jockey 20th Anniversary)
New Single: These Shadows (Acoustic Version)
Dec 01 Utrecht, Netherlands – Tivoli (Le Guess Who Festival)
Dec 02 Copenhagen, Denmark – Pumphuset
Dec 03 Berlin, Germany – Berghain
Dec 04 Cologne, Germany – King Georg
Dec 06 Brussels, Belgium – Les Atelier Claus
Dec 07 Metz, France – Les Trinitaires
Dec 08 Paris, France – Point Ephemere
Dec 09 Brighton, UK – Audio
Dec 10 London, UK – Scala
Dec 11 Leeds, UK – Brudenell Social Club
Dec 12 Glasgow, UK – SWG3
Dec 13 Belfast, UK – Menagerie
Dec 14 Dublin, Ireland – The Grand Social