Monday, October 3, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: Wooden Shjips "West"

I was listening to the new Wooden Shjips’ album I was listening to the new Wooden Shjips’ album West and I asked my wife how she would describe their sound. She paused to think about it for a second and said, emphatically, “Outer space trucker.”
I nodded and smiled. She turned the question to me. I said, “I was thinking it’s vibrations. Vibrations that expand and contract.”
“Yeah,” she said, “like when you’re on the road.”
            If you troll around on the Internet, you’ll find them most often compared to Spaceman 3 and Hawkwind, but in interviews the band has shrugged these comparisons off, citing the Velvet Underground, Stooges and the late-60s Swedish psychedelic band Träd Gräs och Stenar (Trees Grass and Stone) as direct influences. They started as an experiment: take an accomplished lead guitar player and form a band around him with people who don’t know how to play instruments and spin simple beats and melodies over and over until they become hypnotic. “The idea was to play very primitive, improvisational psych rock,” organist Nash Whalen said in a recent interviewwith Amoeblog.
But the experiment with amateurs didn’t work, so Johnson and Whalen recruited a couple of veterans to play bass and drums and they started releasing music in 2006. They gave away their first recordings — not via MySpace or MP3 like most beginning bands do, but as a limited-run 10”. They even paid the postage for out-of-towners who requested copies. The strategy got the band some attention, including a write-up in Rolling Stone, and for the past five years they’ve released a steady stream of short-run singles, EPs and LPs, all but the most recent recorded in their San Francisco practice space on an old eight-track. Their latest is their first with a bigger and wealthier label, so they were able to record it in a studio with an experienced engineer. The result is a lusher, fuller sound than on their earlier releases, which sounded quite dense in their own right. Their music has a nice balance to it, with a guitar and bass that are heavy enough to soothe most metal heads mixed with an organ programmed to sound kind of like a theremin, giving their songs a touch of freaky old sci-fi movie feel. A steady drumbeat locks these into a droning progression that doubles and redoubles back on itself, forming mind-rattling sonic moirés.
“We’re really into stretching out a groove and going for the hypnotic elements of that and then piling on the guitars,” Guitarist Ripley Johnson told Blurt magazine.
On West, the band draws its signature trance-inducing grooves out of a wide range melodies and rhythms. Some riffs call to mind Black Sabbath while others would fit in on the dance floor, such as “Looking Out,” which sounds at first like a sock-hop 45 that’s gotten stuck on the record player and then begins to melt under the onslaught of a fuzzed-out lead guitar.
“The psychedelic music that we play is full of simple beats and the repetitive nature of it is something that you hear in music around the world,” says Whalen, “and that's one of the qualities of the music that creates new thoughts and ideas in people's heads. I think it's one of those things that people are always looking for -- the kind of new experiences that open up their minds. Our music certainly taps into that. There's no message, it's more a case of opening up your mind and experiencing music.”

Wooden Shjips - Lazy Bones from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

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