, August 23rd, 2011 13:26
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. If the sleeve and the title don't make it clear, then the accompanying press release spells it out, making much of the mythical notion of "The West"; of Manifest Destiny and lighting out for the territory, the notion of unexplored frontiers and the unlimited freedom they promise. It also points out that all four of the Shjips crew hail originally from the East Coast, and so for them The West has always been a place that you journey towards, rather than begin from; a place that exists both physically and allegorically. Certainly, Wooden Shjips have always placed themselves very much in the open ended, exploratory tradition of West Coast psychedelia, and the jazz, beat culture and oriental mysticism that preceded it and helped it to flourish. But there's a darkness and a sense of dread in their music too, that implicitly rejects naïve hippy optimism and easy answers. The band's very name may suggest travel, escape and questing for stranger shores, but it also references the David Crosby / Jefferson Airplane song that combines laid-back stoner philosophy with the apocalyptic vision of a world destroyed by an atomic holocaust.
The first Shjips album to be recorded in a proper studio, with an engineer, West is Wooden Shjips' fullest exploration of these tensions to date, and sees the band stepping up their game in every aspect. If, in the past, the differences between the drone rock of Wooden Shjips and the rock drone of Moon Duo have seemed moot, then West deliberately distances itself from Moon Duo's recent Mazes album by being very much the work of a band - four musicians playing off each other, pulling Ripley's songs into unexpected new shapes. Throughout, there's more space, more spontaneity and greater dynamics than on previous Shjips records, and while there may not be any eleven-minute jams like 'Down by the Sea' or 'Fallin'' from 2009's Dos this time around, any fears that their trademark wall of echoing fuzz would be neutered and cleaned up by shiny over-production are immediately dismissed: with additional mastering by Sonic Boom, this is still Wooden Shjips as we know and love them, but even more so.
The opening MC5 crunch of 'Black Smoke Rise' roars out of the speakers like the aforementioned David Crosby's famous VW van with a Porsche engine under the hood; the dope smoke haze belying the power, clarity and sheer poke this monster has at its disposal. Nash Whalen's repeated organ stabs eventually give way to an oscillating one-note modular synth line, before Ripley's driving rhythm guitar erupts into a coruscating solo. And as he half-sings, half-mumbles of "black smoke rising in the west", he seems to suggest some hazily apocalyptic environmental catastrophe - a lyrical theme common to fellow travellers and contemporaries like Arbouretum and Six Organs of Admittance.
This sense of creeping dread suffuses the whole album: the Loop-like 'Crossing' is similarly ominous, whispering percussion dancing along the perimeter of Omar Ahsanuddin's monotonous marching beat. "Anybody here got a smoke?" Ripley asks, and we recall how "to go west" can also mean to die, and how a wooden sh(j)ip can also be a coffin, carrying you from this world to the next. The cracked, stuttering solo searches fruitlessly for a way out, but keeps turning back on itself, all exits blocked.
Wooden Shjips' West seems less the golden promised land of Manifest Destiny, and more the earthquake-threatened end of the road, where the sun sets and the American Dream comes crashing down into the Pacific Ocean's blankly existential gaze. The racing drums and near-rockabilly guitar of 'Lazy Bones' may initially suggest a dance number- a jitterbug?- but the song also evokes the haunted, post-Manson hallucinations of LA Woman-era Doors, or Neil Young's On The Beach (from which the Shjips have previously borrowed, covering 'Vampire Blues' on Vol. 2).
The Young / Crazy Horse influence is most apparent on 'Home', the album's centrepiece. It's the Shjips' most instantly thrilling song to date, the choogling bar band momentum of its gnarled ascending riff constantly undermined by the hazy, echoing uncertainty of Ripley's vocals, and the way each verse collapses into a black hole of drug-damaged entropy, close to one of Lee Renaldo's minor key Sonic Youth songs like 'Mote', before kicking into yet another sky-scraping wah-fuzz solo. 'Flight' begins like Black Sabbath, driven by Dusty Jermier's loping, heavily distorted bass riff, before Whalen takes off on an echo-laden organ solo like a dubbed-out Ray Manzerek. Alan Vega's 'Speedway' may lie beneath 'Looking Out' like a haunted Native American burial ground, but the ghosts of the old west that haunt this album's grooves are nothing more than that - mere phantoms, never quite materialising on a record that exists firmly in the present moment, yet seems able to dissolve time at will. When 'Rising' turns out to be recorded entirely backwards, it's both a knowing retro-psychedelic affectation, and a demonstration of how little difference it makes to the Shjips' driving, monomaniac muse. Rock & roll stirs uneasily in its grave. And from out of the west, some rough beast slouches to be born.