Wooden Shjips

September 6, 2011

If you’ve listened to previous Wooden Shjips releases, or heard much of Moon Duo, this album is a well- worn, familiar pair of jeans to be effortlessly slid into. West is a natural progression from their earlier releases, and lugs the heaviness you’ve sometimes craved from Moon Duo. These San Fransiscans have repetition down to a fine art, tightening the reigns just before the sound tornados into sonic oblivion.

However, for some, little can be taken away after a first listen – the memory of a constant loaded drone or an echo of faraway, preoccupied vocals. It’s not that this album is dull, it’s that it only moves when it wants to and even then does so in such a way that the slight metamorphosis can go unnoticed. A second listen will uncloak twangy, warped guitars dancing at their own pace above the founding vibrations, the mirage they create lowers, where you feel like you could touch it before erratically spiralling too high, out of reach. The organs add muscle to the skeleton, plaining further underground, too deep to dig. Each twist into something new is so subtle, the whole thing creates intersections that are mind-bogglingly confusing, but the sound drives through with ease. By a third or fourth listen you’re picking up sounds you swear weren’t there before and you’re riding them through lengths of entire songs. And by this point, it’s hard to stop yourself – a perfect sound track – this has the ambience to suit the most mundane task and the fan to flame a drastic temper.

Paying homage to the mythology, romanticism, and idealism of The American West, hence the name, the album stays on theme. While a far cry from any Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western, or a Hank Williams country tale, this sound fits the scene just as well. The boundless infinity makes for strange terrain with a psychedelic twist, a long unforgiving desert journey leading everywhere and nowhere, the search for an unattainable mirage, one leg hanging out of a freight train, harmonica in hand, shooting stars, a cooking campfire, one ramblin’ man against the rest. On the brink of exhaustion, in the heat of the sun, these songs are stumbled upon, an invention of the mind, frequencies floating on the breeze.

An eight-track album feels slightly too short, sitting at just over forty mins, you’re left wanting a little more, which might be a good thing. Most tracks have a way of starting heavily and gradually melting into a tranquil but indifferent place, it’s so relaxed I’m not sure they know we’re listening, or if they care. Opener, Black Smoke Rise doesn’t waste any time, driving straight in with deafening guitar, swiftly eased by foot-stepping keys and Morpheus, sleep-inducing vocals, setting the tone for the rest. Each component twists and folds on top of its precursor – it’s the best kind of kaleidoscopic unity. The last minute and a half of guitar wizardry is spellbinding.

Hearing the first, fast-paced moments of Lazy Bones and you’d almost bet your life Jim Morrison’s deep growl is seconds away, until Ripley Johnson’s mellow mumble welcomely chimes in and gestures the tune on a gradual curve. This might be one of the only tracks on the album that feels like a pre-meditated, organised song, and sonic jams are kept close to the chest. It doesn’t lift or sink, just plateaus at a psyched pace.

Opening percussion of Flight grabs from the get-go, backbone-ing the most magnetic song on the album. There’s a seductiveness to it, a temptress is motioning you further into uncharted zones, you’re hypnotised and before you know it vines are growing up your legs, muscles contracting as they tighten.  The organ and guitar create spacious trips, one after the other they devise new directions while vocals simmer through.

Wooden Shjips aren’t revolutionising or reinventing the wheel, which is fine – it wasn’t their intention. They’ve taken a cruise through the past forty years, extracting countless, fundamental sounds and layers and fusing them, tangling them to create a bona fide hybrid. It’s an on-foot, acid trip in the desert sun, miles from civilisation. The sound heard just as the landscape starts taking on a life of its own. Just before the ground turns into a liquid and your feet meet water underneath a heaving, breathing, constantly ever-shaping, hyper-coloured sky.