For a band of cloudy-eyed cosmonaut warlocks, Wooden Shjips sure do sound friendly, and they’re only getting friendlier with time. The band started out as the resident mystics of the Bay Area garage-rock underground, cranking out fried DIY variations on the Stooges/Suicide/Spacemen 3 grooving-into-infinity blueprint on random barely-available vinyl singles and such. But even then, there was a melodic heft to those circular rhythms; they weren’t interested in testing anyone’s patience. On 2011’s West, the band’s third album and their first recorded in an actual studio, they tamed some of their wilder influences, added a healthy dose of Sabbath to their kraut-fuzz mix, and cranked out the sort of tunes that you might want to crank in your Camaro on the way to laser-Floyd night at the planetarium. Back To Land, their newest, bears evidence of a possible recent Neil Young fixation. Since West, half of the band moved to Portland, where they recorded this one, and now there’s some lazy acoustic back-porch strumming mixed in with the highway-of-your-dreams reverb-drones. And by discovering their softer side, Wooden Shjips have made the most compulsively listenable album of their career, the one best-suited for activities other than staring and black-light posters or watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture on mute.
Plenty of hardened psych-rock heads will probably regard Back To Land as an unforgivable sellout move, a deep dilution of the band’s epic churn, but it’s not like they’re turning into Fleet Foxes here. Wooden Shjips are still a deeply groove-focused band, and one of the great things about the album is the way they’re able to fold different sounds into their own without losing its zoned-out appeal. Frontman Ripley Johnson still sings like he’s trying to remember something that’s just out of reach, and he keeps so much echo on his voice that he can be hard to understand. The band still evinces little interest in little things like choruses or bridges or key changes. On each individual song, they’ll lock into one single muscular groove, and they’ll ride it for five or six minutes at a time, with minimal changes. And that locked-in rhythmic mindset is still the band’s greatest strength. “Ghouls” is a wooly motorik blare that sounds like a Stereolab b-side would if someone replaced all their frankophone tendencies with germanic ones. “Other Stars” has a tidal force that never lets up. “Servants” is still the sort of song that makes you want to go on a peyote vision quest at Stonehenge. That side of the band is still very much intact.
But the nature of those grooves has changed; they’re softer, more forgiving, more open-hearted things now. “Ruins” is Wooden Shjips’ take on a bar-band blooz choogle. On “These Shadows,” at least one of the guitars has so little distortion on it that you can actually hear the individual strings being strummed. “Everybody Knows” has a haunted grace that reminds me of Mazzy Star, even if Johnson’s vocal delivery is a few light-years removed from Hope Sandoval’s. And if the title track sounds a bit like the Velvet Underground, it’s third-album Velvet Underground, not “Sister Ray.” Metronomic repetition still rules the day, but now that repetition has new shades and variations working for it, and those changes make the album a richer and more complete experience.
And while the band might not put too much work into structuring their songs, they’ve lately been finding more and more room for melody. That melody mostly takes the form of Johnson’s guitar solos, which are infinitely fuller and prettier and more expressive than his singing voice. On Back To Land, Johnson’s solos have an indolent hovering-firefly grace to them, a twinkling confidence. There’s never any stress in his singing voice, exactly, but I get the impression that he wants to get the singing parts over with so he can get back to soloing. It’s what he does best, and he knows it. And when his solos are at full blaze, Back To Land has a comforting glow to it, a reliable ease that sits perfectly well with the band’s spaciest tendencies. Back To Land is the sort of space-rock that you can throw on when you’re tidying up your house on a Sunday afternoon, and it’ll give you that floating-in-the-ether feeling without creeping out the people in the next apartment. Your mileage may vary, but where I’m sitting, that’s a good thing.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Lady Gaga’s unhinged drama-nerd indulgence Artpop.
• The Solange-curated future-soul compilation Saint Heron.
• Throwing Muses’ album-plus-art-book package Purgatory/Paradise.
• Glorior Belli’s blues-influenced black metal monolith Gators Rumble, Chaos Unfurls.
• Mount Eerie’s old-songs-plus-Auto-Tune oddity Pre-Human Ideas.
• Grizzly Bear’s expanded edition of Shields.
• Dirty Projectors member Nat Baldwin’s solo demos collection Dome Branches.
• Jeremiah Jae’s Dirty Collections Vol. 1 EP.
• Post Louis’s This Could Be A Bridge EP.
• Tei Shi’s Saudade EP.