Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: West and the Bold New Direction of Wooden Shjips

If you squint, you can spot Douglas Martin on the speedboat adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge. What separates Wooden Shjips is their ability to take the template of classic-rock and push it far,...
By    September 9, 2011

If you squint, you can spot Douglas Martin on the speedboat adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge.

What separates Wooden Shjips is their ability to take the template of classic-rock and push it far, far, far past its logical conclusion. While bands many of their fellow San Francisco bands  have gotten by on well-played revivalism or giddily destructive primitivism, the Shjips have flipped traditional rock on its axis by performing it as trance, leaning on cyclical repetition and hypnotic psychedelic detours. Releasing one album each year for the last five, the line between drone-rock and dad-rock has been one Wooden Shjips have straddled better than most.

But after releasing Dos, one of PotW’s favorite records of 2009 , the band needed some time off to gather fresh ideas. That record was the Wooden Shjips release that adhered closest to the classic-rock template, so it made sense for Johnson to give his Shjipmates a rest and put out three twelve-inches as Moon Duo (with keyboardist / romantic partner Sanae Yamada) in the interim.

“Less spin-off and more sequel,” as Jeff quipped last year, Moon Duo took the krautrock driven into Johnson’s heartbeat (if you took his pulse, you’d probably find motorik) and makes good on those Suicide comparisons that are always bestowed upon his primary band. At times more sinister than Wooden Shjips (“Motorcycle, I Love You,“ “Stumbling 22nd St.“), at times more playful (“Mazes”), Moon Duo showed Johnson’s breadth as a songwriter. So it was only a matter of time before the Shjips recharged their batteries and worked on a new set of tunes. Johnson’s love of repetition should never be mistaken for a lack of ideas, and West is more creative than any Wooden Shjips record before it.

Of course, this doesn’t impede the band from sounding like anything other themselves. The grungy opening riff of “Black Smoke Rise,” sounds like the kind of figure Johnson could draw in his sleep. Couple that with the eerie synth organ line, spacey guitar solo, Johnson smoothly crooning along with the melody of the bassline– and, of course, the sound of your consciousness on endless loop, spiraling into vertigo– and you have a song that fits perfectly under the This is What Wooden Shjips Sound Like banner. Of course, it sounds bigger and fuller than their previous output, but since that’s a natural consequence of going into the studio for the first time, let’s not turn studio recording into the main talking point here. Making bands sound good is exactly what recording studios are for.

Without getting into the “how” of the equation (because the “how” is always the least interesting), West is indeed a sprawling monolith, even by psych-rock standards. But when the central theme of your album is the vast expanse of the American West, you can assure the free-flowing highway and blazing hot sun vibe is present by design. Texturally, rhythmically, and songwriting-wise, West is the perfect road-trip record for people who use their iPods to drown out the subway.

A lot of the songs have the rare distinction of being measured bursts of intense, chess-champion-level concentration disguised as freewheeling, hands-off-the-rail jams, the rhythm section fusing together and running like a machine while Johnson breaks away from his main riff to sputter sparks from his guitar. “Home,” from the album’s flawless middle stretch, has a snarling Rock God riff just begging to saluted with devil horns and air guitars by Beavis and Butthead. Not only does the song have a more varied structure than the taffy-stretched two-bar (maximum) motifs of earlier Shjips classics, but after the second chorus, Johnson rips the song into pieces with the kind of hair-whipping, life-altering guitar solo that most fashionable musicians don’t have the stones to attempt, proving that he’s among a dying breed of incredible guitarists.

With “Looking Out” adopting a brighter tone (reminiscent of Moon Duo’s “Mazes” or their own “Fallin’”) and “Rising” upping the psychedelic ante by quite literally being played backwards, “Lazy Bones” could very well be the widest left turn in Wooden Shjips’ discography. Not that the song is a Glenn Branca cover or anything, but it is both faster and shorter in length than any other song the band has released to date, in spite of the fact that the band holds a single chord for a whole minute. At an unusually but thrillingly brisk 3:53, “Lazy Bones”– at least in comparison to the rest of Wooden Shjips’ work– has both the pace and brevity of a Blood Visions-era Jay Reatard song. And even with the droney, hallucinogenic guitar work, it still manages to be the most accessible tune they’ve laid to tape.

Some bands have the game all fucked up. In an attempt to smooth the edges of their sound, they sand them completely off, trying to become more accessible by completely removing what made them compelling in the first place. Wooden Shjips doesn’t do this on West. They didn’t hollow themselves out and glossy up the shell. They streamlined their more outre tendencies; they went headlong into the unbeaten path while still remaining compulsively listenable, maybe even more listenable than they have ever been. West is the sound of a great band stepping into rarefied air, delivering the classic album their devoted cult of fans knew they had in them. It’s an album as deep and majestic as the American West itself.

MP3: Wooden Shjips-“Lazy Bones”

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