Vinyl Dust-off: Wooden Shjips’ West

Lliam Easterbrook brings you his latest finds from excursions into ancient record bins.

Lliam Easterbrook – sonic archaeologist – brings you his latest finds from excursions into ancient record bins.

By Lliam Easterbrook
[senior features writer]

4/5 records

The flower power melodies that used to be a staple of the San Francisco music scene of the late ‘60s is all but a distant murmur of some bygone age. What was, at its peak, a torrential movement burning as bright as new star became an exhausted and wilted relic of a generation who tried to change the world but stretched itself too thin. With a disorganized and unnourished ideology based on love, sex and drugs, it didn’t take long for the fiery scene to slowly burn itself out, like a lit cigarette dropped on the pavement as people walk by — they could pick it up, inhale deeply, keep it going, but no one wants it anymore. Its time has passed. And, at any rate, the Nixon Administration’s rhinoceros-like political agenda was ready to charge in, full speed, head down, to stamp out any spark at any given second, just to be sure.

So the hippies are old now, their ideological dynamo nothing but a rusted out chassis in the backyard. Their kids, for the most part, are embedded in the great dry-rot state apparatus that won. What’s left in the Bay Area some 40 years later is a small but budding music scene, where psychedelic sensibilities still dress the rock and roll skeleton, but the image has changed significantly.

Three full-length albums in, San Fran’s Wooden Shjips has never been a band about crafting the perfect pop song. And they are definitely not about flower power. In fact, they usually aren’t even about vocals. On West we see the Shjips move ever so slightly away from the spaced-out disjointed and extended jams of their previous albums, and into a much more coherent and, dare I say, linear style. This is not a bad thing, for they’ve managed to craft a handful of songs that still rely heavily on fuzzed riffs, distortion and cascading solos, yet are just a tad more fine-tuned than anything they’ve done before. Tracks like “Black Smoke Rise” and “Flight” show influences of Joy Division and Velvet Underground, whereas the organ-tinged “Looking Out” shadows the Doors at their psychedelic best.

Where West falls short, it does so literally. At just over 40 minutes, the album is rather brief — especially when the last track, “Rising,” is merely a muffled and incoherent 5 + minute gyre. I mean, the song is neat enough at first listen, but once you’ve realized it’s just being played backwards — and maybe you’ve also realized you’re out of pot, which was the case with me — you don’t really need to hear it again.

The Golden Gate Bridge has been a symbol for many things. Most significantly, it is a symbol for the west coast, for San Fran — like ‘Hollywood’ for Los Angeles or Che Guevara for all those chameleonic, carbon-copied trendoids I see everywhere. For Wooden Shjips’ West, the bridge is a passageway away from San Fran’s star-child past, crossing over into dark psychedelic tones, fuzz, distortion and melodic repetitions that drone and drone and drone and drone the sonic blur of a band focused not on tending the soil from which flowers might grow, but rather plodding through the muddled mire left over from a roily rainwash.

Enjoy, and: Play it loud. Play it proud.