When Ripley Johnson first pulled Wooden Shjips together back in 2005, their chosen trajectory toward the lo-fi oscillating freak of a garage band coveting Silver Apples was a blueprint mapped in gold leaf and lysergic acid. For fans and contemporaries, this design has so far heralded plenty of acclaim along with a number of limited edition singles, two collected volumes that compile said limited edition singles, and two self-recorded albums containing no singles at all (limited or otherwise).
Interesting, then, that news of their signing to Thrill Jockey earlier this year – who seem to have become the go-to label for this kind of thing – would suggest that Wooden Shjips, like any other band have an understandable need for methodical credence in their push for progress. Even if reports about the lack of extended jams, a tidying up of that Exploding Plastic Inevitable experimentalism and news that Thrill Jockey utilized the services of a studio and engineer for this, their latest album, have all proven surprisingly true.
Engineered in session by Phil Manley of fellow Thrill Jockey band Trans Am and mastered by Peter “Sonic Boom” Kember of Spacemen 3 at MGMT’s Blanker Unsinn studio in Brooklyn, West is an album of unshakable authority. Fans of San Francisco’s finest will be pleased to hear that the sounds on which Wooden Shjips have built their reputation; those oh-so Californian kickbacks to the communal slacker jams of JPT Scare Band and George Brigman thankfully still remain. As does that cerebral Krautrock clout of Guru Guru and Neu! But in light of how this new record was made these sounds are no longer unfussy electronic tape trips. They are euphonies, elegant in their heaviness which owe as much to these aforementioned styles as they do a time where the almighty riff held court. From the early ’70s power psych of Blue Cheer and prog of King Ping Meh (across the seas) exhibited on “Lazy Bones,” to the furious guitar attack of The MC5. In fact, of that latter likeness, for all that people have played on this being Johnson’s “American West” album, some of the finest moments here could have come straight out of Detroit. The driving garage fuzz of both “Black Smoke Rise” and “Crossing” could in some universe I’m sure be half-sped cuts of Wayne Kramer’s take on Ted Taylor’s “Ramblin’ Rose” and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band’s “Slow Down (Take a Look).” And it’s amid this newfound unity, that diamond rough psychedelic rock that it becomes apparent that Wooden Shjips have cut their finest album to date. An album they seem to have been waiting to make for a long time. Made essential in fact thanks to its use of quality studio techniques like the reverse tape effect on closer “Rising,” which adds a suitably cosmic grind, and the crisp keyboard bounce of “Looking Out.” Of which one could even go so far as to suggest a late ’60s West Coast sensibility akin to early Iron Butterfly or heyday Grateful Dead, if you were that far outta time and mind to travel back through the haze.
Yet, in spite of this, West isn’t that ‘inevitable and kinda commercial’ record from that once-subversive band naysayers might nay about, or you may misconstrue from the picture I’m painting here. As sure as green eggs are still eggs, you couldn’t tear that outsider tag from Wooden Shjips if you forced them into Das Hansa Tonstudio with an unlimited budget, side order of Rick Rubin and the challenge to record a moving tribute to Edith Piaf. Wooden Shjips quite simply isn’t that sort of machine. What they have made, or perhaps more importantly what West is for them as a full band, is an exercise in stereo convention (again, studio and engineer), which has enabled them to fully flex their muscle and tone their residual sounds into something absolute. It’s essentially an overhaul of sonic virtue. Which, after Johnson’s efforts earlier this year with Sanae Yamada on Moon Duo’s Mazes, which to this writer is twice the Kerouacian/Californian record they’d have you believe West really is, anything less than a studio produced, straight-up-yet-characteristically-nomadic outing with all the trimmings would have seen Johnson taking one step forward and two steps back. It’s important not to forget too that among those limited singles for Sick Thirst, Mexican Summer and The Great Pop Supplement’s excellent “Big City” / “I Believe It” 7” are cover versions of Neil Young, Spacemen 3, Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot and even LCD Soundsystem. Early signifiers of a group eager to please, with one toe in the commerciality of now and an immovable presence down what psych appreciators might term ‘the rabbit hole.’
This time around however, Wooden Shjips have dragged everything out into the open with savvy and skill and into a lion’s den where West is king and their best attributes are packaged in the most immediate of ways. Heavy, lyrically well-tread and packing a mean proto-motorik groove, from start to finish it has an automotive heartbeat with both eyes on the horizon. It is the sound of Wooden Shjips finally bringing it on home.