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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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”
Wooden Shjips “Back To Land” [Thrill Jockey, 2013]
Background data on Wooden Shjips courtesy of allmusic.com
Wooden Shjips for Back To Land.
And next week…
^ 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’.