The Upshot: Two of our reviewers, both fans of the West Coast psychedelic argonauts, take somewhat different positions on the veteran rockers’ newest effort.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT AND JENNIFER KELLY
Wooden Shjips blew me away on their Back to Land record but sadly not so much on this one. There are great moments here, but they are interspersed with plenty of meh.
I think the issue rests with Ripley Johnson’s voice and the range-bound nature of the music the band makes. On the first few albums his voice added an opium cool to the proceedings, but on this album’s second track, “In the Fall,” it seems like an unnecessary addition.
“Eclipse,” though, the opener, could be Recurring era Spacemen 3. Here, Ripley’s voice meets the seedy vibe and cosmic guitar measure for measure. So when they get the equation right, they hit pay-dirt. This song recalls “Back to Land” and I can see why it was chosen for the pole position. “Red Line” doesn’t really add any new words to the psychedelic conversation, and, as such, feels like filler.
“Already Gone” is where Ripley needs to go with his voice, as it gives something more tangible to the listener instead of just being an atmospheric element. This is a dark song that really brings the goods the way I wanted the rest of the record to. “Golden Flower,” I liked more for the musical arrangement than anything else, especially with the conga jam at the end; it builds to a really cool head that will have you grooving in your seat. This makes the case for the band moving out of their well-polished groove and augmenting the sound with new instruments and making things choppier instead of constantly sailing unimpeded into the galaxy.
The band is tight, and the music ebbs and flows as usual; it just doesn’t go anywhere original. I hope the band will be able to right the shjip on their next effort. —by Jonathan Levitt (FAVE TRACKS: “Eclipse” “Already Gone” “Golden Flower”)
“Eclipse,” off this fifth full-length, is maybe the Wooden Shjips at its essence, a churn and grind of fuzzy bass, a hard, pummeling, unsyncopated drum-beat, and over this unyielding foundation, guitar notes dropping like bright, splintery shards, untethered, fragmentary but vividly colored. The rhythm section cranks the same measure over and over, locked in endless circling groove, while the guitar darts out in unpredictable geometric arcs, like a spirograph machine making intricate patterns out of slight slippages of center. A head-nodders sound. A tunnel of disorienting sensation. A lumbering beast wreathed in dreams. This is Wooden Shjips as it has always been, a fine thing indeed.
Wooden Shjips, the left coast, motoric-drone-rock collective, has been honing this aesthetic since the mid-aughts. Primitive at first — no one but Johnson came to the band as an experienced musician — they have over the years gained increasing control over their sound, though without losing a rapt be-here-now open-endedness. Now with this album – a Latin number five, a peace sign, a declaration of victory — Wooden Shjips reiterates and expands upon its notion of drone as revelation.
A word about that expanding vision: the best song sounds least like what you’ve come to expect. “Staring at the Sun” follows a slouchier, more psychedelic vibe, with a Beta Band-ish stutter step rhythm, and a little of Buffalo Springfield’s “Stop Children What’s that Sound,” in its pendulous alteration between two chords. There’s a roll in this song’s step, a subdued sort of rock and roll swagger. Lyrics about ashes falling and suns in haze reference the forest fires that damn near engulfed Johnson’s adopted home of Portland last summer, and the cut itself has a submerged, surreal glow to it. It feels both more pop and more mystical than anything Wooden Shjips has done to date. Later, on the equally fine “Golden Flower,” Johnson whispers “I wanna rock and roll,” in the softest falsetto whisper you can imagine.
Done and done well, I’d say. — by Jennifer Kelly (FAVE TRACKS: “Staring at the Sun” “Golden Flower”)