Album Of The Week: Wooden Shjips V.
A little while ago, I interviewed Roc Marciano, a rapper and producer whose music I really like. It didn’t go well. Much of the short interview was devoted to awkward conversational fumbling, the sort of thing that happens when a writer and a musician try and fail to build any kind of rapport over the phone. I won’t go into detail, except to say the whole situation bummed me out. We didn’t run the interview, and we won’t be running it.
But in that interview, I did really like one thing that Roc talked about, one that affected the way I hear his music. I’d asked him some kind of lame question about his writing process, and he’d talked about how the most important thing was the pocket: “It’s just like a jazz musician. There’s a certain way. If the music’s playing, I gotta get in pocket with it… The space allows me to have fun rapping. When the beat is so programmed and it sounds like a machine, I hate it. I feel like you’re locked in; you can only do so much with everything.”
The pocket is a hard concept to define. It’s a know-it-when-you-hear-it thing. It has to do with a few different musical instruments (or, in Roc’s case, musical elements) working together — feeding into each other, informing each other, their rhythms perfectly locked-in with one another. It comes from instinct, and from exploration. It’s not about being on-beat, exactly. It’s about finding tiny little rhythms and syncopations. It’s more about beat than melody, but it’s also about beat and melody feeding into one another. It’s one of those almost mystical phenomena that happens when musicians’ brainwaves line up with each other (or, in the case of Roc, who mostly produces his own music, when his producer brainwaves line up with his rapper brainwaves). The pocket is where Wooden Shjips live.
It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, Wooden Shjips were the mysterious and vaguely forbidding space-lord wizards of a thriving Bay Area psych-rock scene. They were about drone and texture and fuzz and obfuscation. There was a jammy interplay to what they did, but it wasn’t the main part. They were raw and feverish and immediate, Hawkwind disciples working on Beat Happening budgets. It took them three albums before they even got around to recording in a studio. But they’ve been gradually, blissfully mellowing out over the years. Their last album, 2013’s Back To Land, had as much room for Neil Young in its influence-stew as it did for Sabbath or the Velvet Underground or Gong. More and more, there’s a sense of joy and ease in the band’s playing, and that really shows through on V., the new one.
V. is Wooden Shjips’ first album in five years, and it comes after a period where frontman Ripley Johnson has stayed a whole lot more busy with his (very good) drone-pop side project Moon Duo. But there is no rust on V. It sounds like the work of a band whose members have been spending hours jamming together every weekend for the past few years — not practicing, but just continuing to feel each other out, playing for fun. (For all I know, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing.) They’re playing slower than they ever have before, and there’s a sort of confidence to their sound on the new album that borders on swagger. It’s not beat-driven music, exactly, and it’s sure not danceable, but there’s a syncopated swing in the way they play that strikes me as being very rare in an indie rock world where rhythm sections so often sound so brittle. They are feeling it on some deep level here, and it just sounds gorgeous.
None of this is obvious. It’s there in subtle touches or melodic flourishes. Something like the shaker that Omar Ahsanuddin plays on “Golden Flower,” opening the sound up in quiet an defined ways. The band is clearly working from a blueprint here. The songs hover in between four and eight minutes — long, but not journey-into-infinity long. Their grooves have force to them, but they never bludgeon. There are riffs, but the riffs nudge the songs along in a way that’s almost gentle. Johnson sings spaced-out musings through clouds of echo, but the songs don’t take flight until he lets his guitar talking. And that’s when the guitars and keyboards and drums really strike up their conversation, when they weave in and out of each other with breathtaking ease.
It probably looks like I’m writing about a jam band here, and there’s an element of that to what they do. But there’s also lots of attention paid to how things sound — to the levels of echo and reverb on Johnson’s twangy guitar solos, to the almost Stereolab-esque layerings of sounds. And there’s repetition, too. Bassist Dusty Jermier is the secret weapon here. He doesn’t take solos; he just finds his riff and plays it with endless repetitive focus. He grounds things, the same way those infinite-repeat riffs used to ground Dan Higgs demonic-poet intensity in Lungfish.
As a lyricist, Johnson is corny in the best ways. He uses the phrase “marijuana cigarette” without evident irony, and when he sings, “I wanna rock and run,” you don’t imagine him putting up finger-quotes up. Weed might be the most commonplace thing in the world these days — especially in Portland, where Johnson lives these days — but he still writes about it in cosmic terms that I find honestly refreshing: “Gonna roll a bone / And in solitary blaze my mind to glory / Sitting in the stars / Floating on the rainbows, glazing high and holy.”
There are moments on the album where Johnson muses about the apocalypse, or about leaving everything behind and living in the mountains with his friends. And the perilous state of the world does hang over the album in an ambient sort of way. (The band wrote the album last summer, partly as a way to deal with all the same stressful things that all of us are seeing.) But this isn’t a topical album. Johnson wonders, “Ever think that I was living in the wrong time.” Maybe he’s thinking about the Donald Trump era. Or maybe it’s the more generalized lament of the wandering stoner. Maybe it’s both.
I’ll say this, though: In recent months, I don’t think I’ve heard an album as downright pleasant and comforting as this one. Even the new Beach House, which I love, doesn’t hit the same warm and gooey pleasure centers. It’s probably a better album than V., but it doesn’t calm me down in quite the same way, and I’ve been finding myself needing plenty of calming down lately. Listening to V., I feel centered. The album won’t hit everyone the same way. A few minutes ago, my wife came into my office, made a face, and said that the song playing (“Golden Flower,” probably my favorite thing on the album) sounded like “Phish covering Third Eye Blind,” which is some cold shit. I get that. I do. But for me, it’s an absolute, uncomplicated pleasure hearing these four people playing together the way they’re playing, finding the pocket again and again.
V. is out 5/28 on Thrill Jockey.
Other albums of note out today:
• Pusha T’s as-yet-unheard, as-yet-untitled Kanye West-produced album.
• Chvrches’ polished-to-a-gleam synthpopper Love Is Dead.
• Dear Nora’s long-awaited indie-pop return Skulls Example.
• Camera Obscura offshoot Tracyanne & Danny’s self-titled debut.
• Retirement Party’s anxious pop-punk debut Somewhat Literate.
• Prefuse 73’s glitchily melodic Sacrifices.
• Bernice’s abstract bugout Puff LP: In the air without a shape.
• Zaytoven’s guest-heavy trap party Trap Holizay.
• Aisha Burns’ culty Americana swooner Argonauta.
• Jo Passed’s scuzzily hooky Their Prime.
• Snow Patrol’s sweeping big-chorus return Wildness.
• Jenny Hval’s The Long Sleep EP.
• Sudan Archives’ Sink EP.
• Wand’s Perfume EP.