My love affair with the band Wooden Shjips (no that’s not a typo!) goes all the way back to their embryonic beginnings some eight years ago, when psychedelic guitar wizard Erik ‘Ripley’ Johnson pulled together a rag-tag team of musically green acquaintances and channeled some of the most thrilling, in-the-red garage psych jams delivered outta San Francisco in many a moon. Early Wooden Shjips were an exercise in primitive minimalism, hypnotic, droney workouts teetering on the edge of oblivion, held in check by the vision and chops of their mastermind and creator.
A bunch of ridiculously collectable early 7 inch singles, which sold out in the blink of an eye, caused me to blow far too many dollars on eBay. These songs were later compiled across two full length releases, entitled Volume 1 and Volume 2. Such is the lot the obsessive record collector.
In addition to the ‘psychedelic’ tag, the band’s sound touches upon associated genres such as space rock and Kraut rock, with bands such as Suicide, Loop and Guru Guru mentioned as kindred ghosts in the machine.
As the musical proficiency of the band as a collective grew, their sound became a little less abrasive and unhinged, refining their approach to exploring hypnotic horizons, but without drifting too radically from their original manifesto.
And with Back To Land, the fourth studio album for Wooden Shjips (not including the two previously mentioned compilations) the band have delivered their most streamlined musical statement yet. Most of the songs clock in at around the five minute mark now – still quite lengthy by pop/rock standards but fairly concise in the realm of psych music!
The band’s circular, locked rhythm section is the bedrock for Ripley Johnson to overlay his fluid, phased guitar excursions and subterranean, echo-laden vocals. Second track Ruins chugs along on an eerie, keyboard laden groove. And track three, Ghouls, isn’t 100 miles removed from Johnson’s other musical project, the hypnotic Moon Duo, which also features his partner Sanae Yamada, her keyboard and their trusty drum machine.
In the Roses delivers a sped up groove of phased guitars and organ, while Ripley’s ever present, trippily cosmic guitar lines flit over the top. Servants is probably closest to the definitive Wooden Shjips template, hazy, hypnotic and epic. Yet final track Everybody Knows tinkers with the formula to deliver an almost alt-country melody, with fuzzier, less phased guitars and cleaner vocals filtered through the ever present psych kaleidoscope. A bold new way forward, or simply a dusty detour, time will tell I guess. In the meantime Back To Land is yet another Wooden Shjips release well worth immersing yourself within during that next long drive or inner contemplation.
Oh yes and if you can get your hands on the vinyl version of the album it’s well worth the effort – a gorgeous gatefold creation housed in a slip out cover and adorned with dazzling retro-psych artwork almost resembling some long lost Thirteenth Floor Elevators record.