Wooden Shjips

Back To Land

If, as has been mooted elsewhere, the artwork of Led Zeppelin III was an indicator of the sonic changes that rock’s greatest behemoth were ushering in on the grooves contained within that platter, then the cover of Wooden Shjips’ Back To Land can make a similar claim, too. While Zeppelin’s gatefold sleeve was notable for its revolving inner disc card that showed alternately images of the band and magical symbols through the holes on the outer cover, here Wooden Shjips have wrapped their psychedelic artwork with a plain white sleeve complete with a new logo and holes of varying sizes that offer glimpses of what lies beneath.

But whereas Led Zeppelin moved into more pastoral areas of exploration with their third album, Wooden Shjips have instead elected to shine the spotlight on the element of their music that gets mostly overlooked – the fact that they groove. And boy, do they go for the hips as much as the head with this incredible collection of music.

Their previous excursion, West, found Wooden Shjips exploring the potential of power via a series of songs that ramped up their sonic credentials. Ripley Johnson’s guitars crackled and crunched their way to the fore while Omar Ahsanuddin’s precise timekeeping made its presence felt via a mix that favoured his impressive contributions. Factor in sympathetic mastering by psyche overlord Sonic Boom and the resulting album was the band’s most muscular to date.

Fast-forward to now and Back To Land is more than just a career high-water mark for the band, it stands proud within the field of psychedelic music. To a certain degree, Wooden Shjips are the Ramones of their musical terrain. Like the New York delinquents, they’ve reduced rock & roll to its very essence: the simplicity of major chord sequences swathed in distorted fuzz guitar, almost moronic yet highly effective metronomic beats, pulsing bass and keyboards that dance around and colour the core musical components and all slowed down for a less than teeth-grinding effect. Despite discovering the joys of an extra chord or two, there’s nothing superfluous about Back To Land; everything that’s needed is in place and any excess baggage has long since been jettisoned. Not that Wooden Shjips have really ever been burdened by a surfeit of effects or unnecessary embellishment but right here, right now, this feels like the moment that the band has been working towards since they first got to grips with the joys of hypno-monotony.

Perhaps it was the move from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco to the more bucolic climes of Oregon for the guitarist and drummer that has had such an effect on their music. Certainly the calling card of the acoustic version of ‘These Shadows’ that was streamed earlier this year suggested that Wooden Shjips’ trajectory was now headed to new territories. Beautifully paced and given a lachrymose air thanks to Johnson’s understated guitar work and Nash Whelen’s mournful organ, the song displayed a hitherto undiscovered side of the band and one that revealed that there was so much more to them than bludgeoning riffs and unrestrained freak-outs. The version presented here isn’t a million miles away from that taster as it finds itself fattened out with the eternally comforting sound of a fuzz pedal being stomped on.

Maybe the work that Johnson’s done with Moon Duo has left its mark on him. Their use of drum machines and sequenced bass has always proved irresistible to the feet but, as countered by Johnson when speaking The Quietus in 2011 the material between the two bands has always been interchangeable. What’s very much in evidence here is how confident Wooden Shjips now sound. Between West and Back To Land, their growth as musicians – and, crucially, the dynamic between them – is palpable and as a result the band are happy to let their music unfold at a more measured pace. What’s more, as evidenced as early as the opening title track, Wooden Shjips have learned how to swing. It’s there in Johnson’s rhythm guitar parts and the economic yet effect lead lines laid down on top of them and certainly in the low-end foundations of Dusty Jermier’s bass and it continues convincingly with the smoothness of ‘Ruins’.

Not that they’ve forgotten how to slam the pedal to the metal. The coruscating ‘Ghouls’ is the result of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘The Living End’ being driven by Jeff Lynne headlong into a brick wall at high speed but the overall effect of ‘Back To Land’ is that of a band allowing some breathing space into their previously dense sound. While the repetition that’s characterised their previous releases is present and correct, Wooden Shjips’ approach with Back To Land is akin to seduction rather than press-ganging. Smooth and lustrous throughout, this collection should see Wooden Shjips emerge from their subterranean lair to reach a deservedly wider audience. After all, this is the sound of the velvet overground.

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