The knock on Wooden Shjips is that if you’ve heard one of their songs, you’ve heard them all. And that might be the knee-jerk reaction to their latest release West, but dig through the layers of distortion, feedback, fuzz and reverb and there’s more than meets the ear.
Scoff if you must, but the band has opened its scope, geographically speaking at least, since the days when it once (assumedly) demanded “Dance, California” on a 7-inch single, but also sonically. The new record takes in a more vast landscape. The subject matter, the mythology of the American West, certainly suits the band’s vast and driving sound, which has always been one very-fast-car-with-no-top away from the classic road trip.
And like any good road trip, Wooden Shjips songs are much more about the journey than the destination. Which is to say, they meander but they do so quite deliberately, and they make no U-turns in the form of verses or choruses — they move straight ahead until they get to the end.
Like a large red convertible doing 120 on the interstate streaking by canyons, mountains, plains and blue sky, the band is razor sharp in its focus, Wooden Shjips’ huge swirling walls of guitar drive the music into a propulsive drone. Kaleidoscopic keyboards parts and buzzsaw guitars that sound like they could have escaped from Wooden Shjips two self-produced albums for Holy Smoke and a slew of 7-inches creep through West as if they were leitmotifs. Though here things get a bit more textured, which, where Wooden Shjips is concerned, is sort of like Robert Rauschenberg adding more layers to a painting. A downright rockabilly twang is buried somewhere deep in the song “Looking Out”; a jukebox riff that sounds like Crazy Horse played through a Rushmore-size stack of amps thunders through “Home”; “Flight” borrows a harmonic progression from Cream (and shakes the dust off it) and then twists it through a death trip full of Ghost highway rattles, tambourines and Wurlitzer.
This album marks the first time the band has recorded in a proper studio and with an outside engineer, and it shows. Fans of the gnarled edges and crackle that pervaded Wooden Shjips’ early output (since 2006 to now) will find none of that here. Where some of those early songs sounded like something a young Jack Nicholson might have heard in his head had he dropped acid in the desert and stumbled upon a Jefferson Airplane concert, the new record smoothes those edges with waves of more managed distortion that wash over the songs.
Ripley Johnson’s vocals though, if anything, are buried deeper in the mix and harder to make out. With the richer production he tends to sound a bit less like he’s channeling Suicide’s Alan Vega, though the influence is still undeniable. However, good luck trying to make out many of the lyrics. But how much more than “Driving till we get [inaudible]/ leaving all the [inaudible] behind/ nothing on our empty minds” in “Crossing” do you really need? As the songs are almost trance inducing impressionist meditations and not narratives per say (well, that’s a best guess), hearing every word (even with headphones) may not be of the essence. If you needed any further proof of this, on the album’s closer, “Rising,” the vocals are played backwards for the entire five-plus minutes of the track.
The record was recorded in a six-day stretch at Lucky Cat Studios in San Francisco (which is rich with vintage analog recording equipment) so it makes sense that it’s more cohesive than previous Wooden Shjips albums, which were recorded in fits and spurts in rehearsal spaces. Not only did the band members take the step of bringing in a producer; hell, they even shipped the recordings off to New York for professional remastering. None of this is to suggest that previous efforts were haphazard, or weren’t in the band’s vision. The result isn’t a radical departure from the sound of those recordings by any stretch (not as dramatic as, say, Nirvana teaming with Butch Vig for Nevermind). It’s like if you’d got a favorite old pair of boots resoled. All the old creases and scuffs are there, but they don’t hurt your feet anymore. With West, Wooden Shjips is just breaking in its new soles — and hitting its stride.