Back in 2003, Ripley Johnson (singer/guitarist) hatched a shrewd plan. Entranced by the monotonous scuzz of The Velvet Underground’s Sweet Sister Ray bootleg, and the minimalist drone of classical composers Terry Riley and La Monte Young, a cast of ‘non-musicians’ was sought and assembled whose unblemished primitivism would both propel Johnson’s descent into the hypnotic vortex of rhythmic repetition, while securing a launch-pad to fire-off his sheet-metal guitar eruptions.
This first incarnation of WOODEN SHJIPS lasted long enough to spawn two self-released (predominately instrumental) singles Dance, California (2006) and Shrinking Moon For You (2006) before it too, slipped into the vortex. While these offerings remain fizzing forays in avant-garde experimentalism and stonehenge-thuds, an inevitable glass ceiling was reached. Retaining Nash Whalen (keys) and integrating the more seasoned rhythm-section of Dusty Jermier (bass) and Omar Ahsanuddin (drums) resulted in 2007’s Loose Lips 7” and with it, a sea-change in mood and texture. Their prototype bedrock beat morphed into a cool pulse, the frenzied cat-scratch guitars replaced by a swirling hum of fuzz and Johnson’s vocal delivered half-whispered, fully echoed and as blissfully detached as Morrison at his most nonchalant, conjured the vamp lustfully eyeing you across a crowded room. The bitch who cracked the bullwhip had lost her dominance. Now with new label Thrill Jockey throwing their weight behind them, Wooden Shjips release West their strongest and most accomplished album to date.
Previous LP’s Wooden Shjips (2007) and Dos (2009) had their flaws. Notwithstanding individual flashes of brilliance, (Shine Like Suns and For So Long posses the power to trigger acid flashbacks), the ragtag collection of ideas and influences mirrored the erratic flight-path of the fly rather than the linear path of the crow, while at times they appeared so entrenched in metronomic grooves (Motorbike), poor melody was left sulking in the corner. However there are no such grievances here, West harnesses and channels every zenith moment that Wooden Shjips have attained thus far and more; it’s cohesive, thematic and panoramic in scope and…it flows. Like Nevermind/Loveless/The Stone Roses, West has it’s own sonic idiosyncrasy, a unique textural identity saturating the record from start to finish. “It’s the first time we entered a ‘real’ studio”, explains bassist Jermier. “Working with 16 tracks instead of 8 and recording analogue allowed us the freedom to really experiment, re-tracking all these ethereal spooky sounds and not having to discard any of them”. Couple that with Phil Manley at the helm (“having another engineer run the show was pretty nice”) and mastered by dexterous-wizard Sonic Boom (Panda Bear/MGMT) and a portal to a 3-D landscape is opened, where the listener is free to roam at will. None more so than Flight, a creepier, phantasmagoric Maggie M’Gill that grooves and drifts in slow-motion before hitting a dense flock of delayed wah guitars and tremulous organ licks, all perfectly interweaving, darting and overlapping each other. It must have been an absolute nightmare to mix, Manley gets it bang on.
Lazy Bones is another tour-de-force that sees Wooden Shjips’s footsteps crunching virgin snow, “that was a fun one, that’s probably the fastest song we’ve done” remarks Jermier proudly. Hurtling like a bullet-train as Johnson dispatches lines with ice-cool aplomb, ‘I wanna feel your eyes crawlin over me’ and dripping with the liquid-chrome guitar that percolates through the whole album, it would soundtrack Cassady’s road-trips if he was around today. Previously Wooden Shjips would use their myriad of influences as building-blocks to create their sound, with West they’ve infused them into the cement. There still apparent; the singular minimalism of Suicide, the spacial freedom of Tangerine Dream, the cyclonic space-rock of Loop and the glutinous fuzz of The Stooges, but it’s now undeniably a Wooden Shjips record. If your ordered copy of the vinyl was rendered to wax in the PIAS blaze, you can still purchase it directly from Thrill Jockey records, I’m still waiting on mine with infantile impatience.
6th September sees Wooden Shjips joined by fellow San Francisco-based musical-chameleons THE FRESH & ONLYS to co-headline The Kazimier. With the creative output of a Henry Ford factory (four albums in three years), current EP Secret Walls finds them in languid mood. It’s worth seeking out for Wash Over Us alone. Instrumentally, it’s as orchestrated and sweeping as a Ennio Morricone score, burrowing spindly guitars and trickling keys amalgamate to create a world thats cavernous yet claustrophobic. Invoking a decaying gold-rush town where phantoms walk amongst the living, Tim Cohen delivers his lament with such fractured dread, ‘we are puppets and our bodies are painted on, that waters gonna wash all of us’, one can sense there’s one standing right beside him.
In booking this gig, Harvest Sun Promotions have pulled off a real coup (local drone favorites MUGSTAR are also on the bill with records from scouse-podcast-king BERNIE CONNOR) and reinforced their position as one of the cities leading promoters. I’m already there.