Wooden Shjips: Back to Land (Thrill Jockey Records)

San Franciscan psych voyagers deliver their most concise LP yet on excellent fourth album

Released Nov 11th, 2013 via Thrill Jockey / By Richard Lewis
Wooden Shjips: Back to Land (Thrill Jockey Records) Continuing 2013s fashion for excellent psych albums drawn from all over the globe, Back to Land sees one of the leading lights of the movement, San Francisco sonic adventurers Wooden Shjips re-enter earth’s orbit after the success of 2011s colossal West, an album that saw the band’s profile increase exponentially.

Back to Land proves to be an accurate title as following the full blown space rock of earlier releases and the frontier stalking West, the psych modernists head back to shore. An alternative sobriquet of ‘Return to Earth’ would explain how the band have reigned in some of their lengthier space rock excursions to hone in on a sound inspired by 1960s psych pop and classic American rock.

Wrapped in a cover vaguely reminiscent of Led Zeppelin III, the album were Page, Plant and Co delivered an album that swerved away from heavy blues riffage into more acoustic pastures, the LP sees the quartet edging away from the hard-hitting impact of earlier works. While the relentless Krautrock drive and cyclical Suicide/Spaceman 3 rhythms are still present, this time they utilise a musical form of soft power, leading to a more immersive experience.

Now based in indie mecca Portland, Oregon and put to tape by Quasi producer/Elliot Smith archivist Larry Crane, Back to Land is the sound of Wooden Shjips with the contrast boosted and the treble turned up. All of the tracks here bar one clock in at under six minutes, a new record in brevity for these dealers in sonic maximalism.

Where previous releases were anchored by the heavy toked-up trudge of the rhythm section, here the songs have greater buoyancy, with Shjips' mainman Erik ‘Ripley’ Johnson on scintillating form, his lead guitar lines cutting clearly through the mix.

As their name made apparent from the outset, derived from a track on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s classic 1970 eponymous debut, Wooden Shjips' fondness for late sixties Laurel Canyon haziness was always a facet in their sound, one which increasingly comes to the fore here.

The title track is first in the running order, giving a clear indication of what follows, ‘Ruins’, second making it explicit. Founded on the endlessly looped basslines of earlier works, the approach is markedly lighter, the band sashaying along on a near variation of sixties garage classic ‘Psychotic Reaction’, breaking towards the end into the nearest thing the quartet have come to a straightforward guitar solo.

The up-tempo ‘Ghouls’ revolving around a Vox Continental organ riff befitting the late Ray Manzarek is the band’s most streamlined moment thus far, a psychedelic garage-pop tune compellingly twisted out of shape by the febrile guitar break midway through. Whereas the group Manzarek was de facto musical director of was home to one of the most explosive frontmen to pick up a microphone, the present band are the polar opposite, Ripley Johnson’s murmured vocals another texture amongst the garage rock surges.

‘These Shadows’ that closes Side One surely ranks as one of the mellowest cuts in the band’s catalogue, an acoustic-led strum, cushioning low in the mix keys and Johnson’s lyrical solo combining to create a track that could easily have slotted onto a latter day Neil Young album.

‘In the Roses’, constructed around a keyboard riff backed by a slowly oscillating white noise sound and overlaid with rattling percussion continues the newly divined direct approach, eddying away towards the fade on circling guitar currents. ‘Other Stars’, unintentionally or not judging by the title is underpinned by a electronic riff that sounds dimly like a vintage version of the Dr. Who theme that effectively renders a oil-screen lightshow in sound.

‘Servants’ meanwhile, based on a similar crunching riff as West nugget ‘Black Smoke Rises’, harks back to the vast grooves the ‘Shjips made their name with, a hypnotic rolling juggernaut that unsurprisingly is the longest track here.

‘Everybody Knows’ leads into the end credits, a reflective Crazy Horse-esque cut that nudges into classic rock territory, possibly indicating the laidback direction Wooden Shjips may take on album number five. Until then Back to Land is deserving of rapt attention, possibly ranking as the best set of songs the San Franciscans have issued to date.