OFF THE WATER, BACK TO LAND

There are a number of interesting things about San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips, not least their idiosyncratic approach to spelling. Here are a few others:

  • They were formed in 2003 by Ripley Johnson with the express purpose of creating innovative music and not being famous.
  • Following a Captain Beefheart tradition, they explored playing instruments with which they were unfamiliar.
  • Their first released music was a self-produced run of 300 hundred singles. No digital, no downloads, no hype; they gave them away.
  • The music layers repetitive drones and riffs with severely understated vocals.
  • Influences that jump out are krautrock, garage rock and US-style psychedelia.

Interest piqued? Well read on, because their 2013 release Back To Land was one of the highlights of the Vinyl Connection year.

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Being a supposedly serious music person, I should zero in on the music because that’s what it’s all about really, isn’t it? Being the coverart tart I am, however, I’m going to reveal that I was in love with Back To Land before the stylus even touched the record. Here are a few of the things that seduced me:

  • The die-cut bubble-holes in the outer sleeve
  • A vibrantly psychedelic gatefold
  • The fact that there are, therefore, two sleeves
  • The inside of the gatefold evoking the early 70s Vertigo ‘swirl’ label
  • Having that pattern inside the sleeve and on the label too
  • Coloured vinyl of a pale spearmint green
  • A bonus 7” single with a drawing of the band

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One way of creating a word picture of the music is by citing bands that the Shjips evoke. This does not in any way diminish their vision; I imagine the band would admit the musical free associations. The influences are many and scarcely hidden.

The title track opens proceedings in mid-tempo with rhythm section and organ locked together in a rolling groove. The lyrics are indecipherable but that’s not critical; the voice is another rumbling low-key element in the mix. When it the guitar solo arrives it is almost surprising that it is so lyrical, recalling a chooglin’ Creedence Clearwater Revival at their laid-back best.

‘Ruins’ has a similar tempo with atmospheric organ providing pale colour to a haunting melody. The guitar part, in contrast, is almost jaunty – imagine Tony Joe White soloing over an acoustic Black Sabbath moonshine base. ‘Ghouls’ has a sped-up space groove; definite Hawkwind tendencies here with added synth whooshes (always bound to bring a smile to the Vinyl Connection dial) and a nicely fuzzed-out guitar.

The first side is completed by ‘These Shadows’, a slower song that brought appreciative thoughts of the second Velvet Underground album, White Light/ White Heat, despite the slow pace and cleaner production.

LP action. Makes you as woozy as the brown acid.

LP action. Makes you as woozy as the brown acid.

Side Two opens with the up-tempo garage rocker ‘In The Roses’. This one had me racing to the seminal Nuggets compilation to spin some sympatico Sonics or even Blues Magoos. I loved the guitar floating on top, the echoing bell-like runs evoking something of Manual Gottsching’s (Ash Ra Temple) guitar playing^. Another fast one follows. ‘Other Stars’ is all circling organ triplets and a good dollop of distortion. Though the ringing guitar solo has little more than echo added; it cascades like Jerry Garcia through to a fade-out that comes too soon.

‘Servants’ has a heavier feel, though it’s hard to say what is different. Perhaps it is a grindingly repetitive guitar riff that would not have been out of place on an early Black Sabbath album. Again, the languorous vocals counterbalance the heaviosity to some extent, though I must say that at six minutes, this is the one track that rather out-stayed its welcome. Last song on the 12” is ‘Everybody Knows” – not the Leonard Cohen song but another mid-tempo number with distorted guitar, ghostly vocals and the feel of a grunged-up Harmonia or maybe Crazy Horse cooking themselves some live barbecue.

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The single’s A-side is ‘Colours’ which follows the template of the album but has a much lighter feel due to a sparser drum sound and less massive guitars. It’s almost like a sketch for an album track that just needs the other three layers of noise added. The B-side is delightful: an ‘acoustic’ version of album-track ‘These Shadows’.

For all the relentless industrial grade psychedelia on display, there is a melodicism and even a tenderness permeating the album that seduces with repeated listens. Imagine wandering through a derelict factory complex, roofless and rust-boned, the metallic thump and grind of machines long gone echoing in your head… then stumbling across a neglected garden of crepuscular beauty. That is the experience of Back To Land. In the final analysis one should probably try to assess whether Wooden Shjips transcend the sum of their influences or remain a grungy knowing pastiche. But you know what? I don’t really care; I just loved the trip.

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TITLE FOOTNOTE

Does the name of the band pay homage to the classic Crosby Stills and Nash song?

If so, perhaps the album’s name connects with the song lyric, “Wooden Ships on the water, very free”

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SOURCES

Wooden Shjips “Back To Land” [Thrill Jockey, 2013]

Background data on Wooden Shjips courtesy of allmusic.com

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AWARDS

lotus tatooThe 2013 Vinyl Connection ‘Lotus’ award for album packaging goes to…

Wooden Shjips for Back To Land.

And next week…

dollar-bling-1307981  The album that won the 2013 Vinyl Connection award for “Most bare-faced luxury re-issue rip-off aimed at gormless fans”, otherwise known as the ‘Bling’.

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^ I have referenced a lot of music in this article, some of it quite well known but some more obscure. If you have curiosity about any of it, feel free to start a thread in ‘Comments’.

15 comments

  1. It undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that I turned-off Oscar Peterson’s ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, to listen to Wooden Shjips [ex You tube] today that I couldn’t stick with it. Another day? Another lifetime? Doesn’t matter; good writing made me curious enough to try, thanks Bruce.
    Tangentially, reading John Safran’s ‘Murder in Mississippi’ (Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin 2013) is softening me up to the proposition that it’s OK for music (art) to be unsettling. Good book.

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    1. ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ to Wooden Shjips sure is one mighty transition. Perhaps pad up again on a day when you are more in Search of (industrial) Space rather than genial swing?
      Safran’s entire career is built upon the premise of being as unsettling as possible, isn’t it? I’ve heard that particular book ticks the box.

      Like

      1. I admire Safran as an Iconoclast … but sticking to ‘Murder in Mississippi’ and what it might provoke me to think about listening to music, John explicitly explores the main perspectives that colour his and others’ views of gossip, context and evidence as it emerges in this investigation of the murder of a renowned racist. He looks at himself as observer/ actor in the broader story, which goes back to his ‘prank’ of claiming Richard Berrett has African blood at a prize-giving for ‘White’ athletes in Mississippi. He handles this putting on and taking off of filters or lenses deftly and includes his own experience of these things in the investigation and more widely. This does not make the story telling sound to compelling but it is, it is indeed a good book.
        But returning to what it suggests to me about listening to music, it demonstrates the benefit of acquiring both the knowledge to understand the subject matter and of being open to discovery of different/ differing perspectives as you explore a soundscape. Whether we are conscious of it or not, whether we are good or bad at doing it does not change the fact that it happens. So ‘I think to myself’, why not try to be a little better at it?

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    2. We come to every perception with our own lenses. It is universal and inevitable. But perhaps it could be argued that noticing that we are actually viewing a world tinted by our own learning (overt and covert) is a significant beginning to having the OPTION of trying to disengage from the filters now and then.
      I sometimes choose music (to acquire or to experience) that I know will stretch me. But not when I am wanting, say, comfort.

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  2. May I be a bit of a contrarian?

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    1. I put up a link to this post on a Facebook group and was astounded at the speed with which two persons absolutely slammed Wooden Shjips. It seems ‘opinion is divided’. So if you mean, is it OK to offer a different take, of course!

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      1. No, I really like Wooden Shjips, and I love Ripley’s side project Moon Duo too, he’s a really remarkable guitarist – I’ve been lucky enough to see him play twice this year and he really didn’t disappoint. I’m also a bit of a groupie for Thrill Jockey records in general, so I pre-ordered BTL.

        It’s just that, flawless packaging aside, I found BTL to be a bit of a damp squib compared to either their first LP, or the mighty ‘West’. I think its just missing a stand out song for me, a touch of spikiness amongst the pastoral. In fact I preferred Moon Duo’s ‘Circles’.

        But I fully accept that maybe it’s a case that I just need to grow up a bit and stop pretending I’m still 17.

        A great write-up as always though Bruce.

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  3. I gotta admit that just seeing the pictures of the cover seduced me, and I’m going to have to check them out now. 😉

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    1. Good on you Marie. But, taking note of some of the discussion above, be warned! Put on your stoner-space-rock-relentless-lumbering-psychedelic hat if it’s to hand!

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    1. Sure is. Why we love vinyl!
      Thanks for visiting.

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  4. Not as good as this though!

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  5. […] well-read posts featured Yes, Wooden Shjips and the travails of Record Storage (or perhaps it was the Graham Nash album […]

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  6. CB went and checked this band out after reading your piece. Yeah, i like them a lot. Will have to see about a purchase. When you put Beefheart, CCR (Chooglin), Tony Joe White and Crazy Horse in the same write up, CB’s head started to smoke.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just one piece of advice: Don’t smoke inn bed.

      Liked by 1 person

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