Wooden Shjips are back with the fuzz for your stereo with their latest album West. We decided to do something special for this album review, as we put the new album to the test with two sets of ears at work. Anthony and Ronnie both offer their takes on the album, and with different influences and tastes our two reviewers give us an interesting look into West. Let us know in the comments what you think, and who got it right!
Review by Anthony (Bay Area Managing Editor):
Ok, before anything is even said about this album, a disclaimer is necessary… the cover art is frame and wall worthy for any room of my apartment because I am a lollipop sucker for great shots of the Golden Gate Bridge. To me, it is one of the most inspiring, unique, and awesome pieces of man-made engineering architecture ever created. Obviously, Wooden Shjips agrees with me to some extent, and add in the fact that this band has San Francisco origins, and there is already some very serious pre-listen bias festering in my ears before any track is even played. Not to worry though, I have shared West with many other avid music lovers and most seem to agree with my analysis. The question now becomes…do you? Listen to a few tracks following the transport and make the call yourself.
The current configuration of Wooden Shjips has been rocking since 2006. Their latest release, West, is their 5th major release as a band, but only their 1st production that was professionally recorded and engineered in a studio. Their musical style has been called “experimental rock,” in that the sound seems like a wandering, boundless nomad. Trying to understand the underlying principles that formulate the flow of melody and lyrics is like trying to pick apart the Google search algorithm. There is a lot going on at all times, but the sound is far from chaotic. The one steady element of their music seems to be the tempo. The drum work by Omar Ahsanuddin is a consistent pushing force that grooves each track to a reasonable stopping point and starts off the next in a different direction. All other elements: guitar, synthesizer, vocals, organ, and bass, piece together a psychedelic journey through the cosmos. Think The Doors with an electric organ, guitar distortions, and modern synthesizer technology.
With only 7 tracks coming out on West, it looks more like an EP than a full feature album. But trust me, once you have sat and listened through it once, it will have seemed more like 37. Each track is very unique and looks out to temper with a different part of your psyche. “Black Smoke Rises” features a dance worthy drum beat, a Manzarek laced keyboard melody, signature distorted guitar sounds, and low pitched Erik “Ripley” Johnson vocals. A track called “Crossing” is a psychedelic trip-track and a half. It provides direct imagery into heading out on a drug induced journey through the elements. The pulsating keyboard sound, wandering guitar distortions, and tambourine kicks vibrate the woozy side of your brain like it was meant to be and I can only imagine this track featured in a live performance. Overall, the album is a hit for fans that like adventures, musical or otherwise, and like to get into new things. West provides rudiments from all the great decades of rock into a uniquely synergistic style that is surely worth seeing live and leaves you thinking about the possibilities of your own manifest destiny.
Review by Ronnie (Founding Editor):
West is a quick trip clocking in under 40 minutes- a collection of seven songs that would be an EP for many artists. While West is not a grandiose experience, it’s the perfect way to get introduced to 60s and 70s inspired San Francisco outfit. Wooden Shjips bring the reverb and distortion to your ears right away with the lead single track “Black Smoke Rise”. It’s the start of a psychedelic journey through the many generations of San Francisco rock history. Wooden Shjips are right at home in the sound made famous by the legends before them- The Doors, The Velvet Underground, and even Link Wray. While Wooden Shjips may be pulling from a good amount of influences, there is no denying that the sound is familiar. It’s a good thing though for the band, because they do it the right way. It’s dangerous to sound all too familiar, if the influences sound that much better. That’s not the case with this band or this album.
“Crossing” opens with a guitar intro that sounds like its about to breakout at any moment, but settles back into the haze and fuzz of distortion. The song drives along, painting a picture in the mind of a LSD trip around San Francisco and the Haight Ashbury in the days when Joplin and Hendrix would be playing free shows in “the park”:
On track three, “Lazy Bones” get the Link Wray vibe going with a more uptempo beat pushing the song along. The methodical organ and guitar tracking is heavy throughout the album and prevalent on “Home” until halfway through when we get our first true guitar solo. It’s a nice break from the acid trip, that brings you spiraling down and back up again.
“Flight” allows us to hear some vocal variations from vocalist and guitarist Erik “Ripley” Johnson. As subtle as they may be, they offer a nice change of pace within the track- catching you off guard with a simple drop in key. As the deep organ sound encompasses the track, and searching guitar solos surround the air, you can imagine a young Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane singing along to the track. “Ripley” and Slick would have been a vocal duo of lore if their paths had crossed:
“Looking Out” picks up the pace again, with a distinguishable change in tempo and beat. The track is as uplifting as much as LSD-infused psychedelic rock can get. “Rising” is the fading and distorted end that seems fitting to West. The track is one of the least memorable on the album, but completes the sound and vibe of the previous 6 tracks nicely.
Sometimes an album is just plain good. If artists and fans approached each new work of music as having to be “the best” each time, nothing would get done in the musical world and we would have a lot less music. West is not a life-altering or stop the track right now and tell all your friends type of experience, but it’s not supposed to be. Pick this up and appreciate the sound of a band who can take you back a few decades the right way.
The Consensus Score:
~ A good album and place to start if you haven’t heard of Wooden Shjips before. The musical journey is short but sweet, as the San Francisco rockers successfully master a sound of reverb-space rock on West that will please 60s and 70s purists and new comers. Head out on a Wooden Shjips journey. Have fun, be safe.