Wooden Shjips: Back to Land

Music Reviews
Wooden Shjips: Back to Land

San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips have developed a reputation for exposing the fuzzier layers of a repetitive psych ‘n’ roll meditation. Groovy walls of bass, sinister organs and electric slabs of overdrive permeate their output, especially on their more-or-less breakout LP, West, released in 2011. That album, comfortable in its outsider, sludgy skin, amounted to a driving exclamation for the band’s drug-haze milieu.

On the fittingly titled Back to Land, Wooden Shjips set a course for much more demure waters, flanking their blotter-acid beats with more defined melodies, structured compositions and an ear toward the moveable grooves they’ve only toyed with in past releases. That direction is cemented from song one, the title track, which settles into a driving rhythm right away, guitarist/vocalist Erik “Ripley” Johnson executing lazy sermons of reverb-swathed vocals over what seems like a looping chord progression. For all the tempered alcoves the album navigates, Wooden Shjips are still a band who aren’t afraid to overplay a riff.

But even while it seems like Back to Land bubbles in those familiar pools of repetition, their playing more often coaxes the groove to take flight rather than be run into the ground.

“Ruins” feels wrong somehow, like you’ve wandered into a dangerous party full of strangers swaying to a forbidden jam that just will not end, some nightmare that you’re positive you want to finish out. “These Shadows,” itself awash in heavy fuzz, parlays the album’s sturdiest evidence of creative liberty, highlighting pretty leads, ride-fronted drums and Johnson’s still nearly indistinguishable vocal delivery. The difference here is in the attention to staying grounded.

There are still elements of the bombast that secured them a cozy spot in the Bay Area psych scene to begin with, as on “In the Roses,” a tune bulging with those hypnotic, bloodshot fissures of spacey drone. By and large, though, Back to Land finds one of the more seasoned practitioners of cosmic rock coolness feeling their hidden Harvest side creep up ever closer.

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