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Published: 2011/08/24
by Brian Robbins

Wooden Shjips

Wooden Shjips West (Thrill Jockey Records)

Moon Duo Mazes (Sacred Bones Records)

If there was such a thing as “Technicolor black & white”, then the brave brainwave navigators of San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips would be the acknowledged masters of the genre. Kaleidoscopic patterns and tie-dye spirals of every possible shade of white, grey, and black – sometimes all at once; sometimes none at all – are the visuals that go with the audio in the Shjips’ world. There’s nothing dark about it; it’s deep – dancing-with-a-miner’s-helmet-on deep, boys and girls. And if you let yourself go with the vibe, then the other colors of the rainbow aren’t needed – there are many, many hues to the Shjips’ sound just the way it is. Wooden Shjips’ lineup (drummer Omar Ahsanuddin, bassist Dusty Jermier, Nash Whalen on organ, and Ripley Johnson on guitar and vocals) have five years under their belts together at this point, with a firm grip on who they are and what their sound is without sounding like they’ve gotten complacent in the least. The shades of grey just keep on a’coming.

West, the Shjips’ latest offering, finds them in an honest-to-goodness studio for the first time in their history. Veteran Shjipheads should not despair – the move is a good one, complemented by Phil Manley at the controls, a master of knowing when sonic spice is needed and when to just let the brimstone stink. By virtue of holing up in Lucky Cat Studios in San Fran for six days (rather than the band’s past catch-as-catch-can efforts recorded in their own rehearsal space), West feels more cohesive than anything they’ve done so far – and never, ever feels confined or over-produced.

Highlights include the almost-rockabilly-but-not-quite churn of “Lazy Bones”, a scene from an old western with the ponies slightly cranked on fast-forward. Or dig the going-to-a-go-go lurch of “Black Smoke Fire”: Whalen’s keys bump and grind and swing and sway around the wumpthump of the rhythm section while Ripley’s guitar buzzes and growls, busting into full-tilt screech and sizzle at the 2:36 mark. Speaking of guitar, Ripley’s work on “Crossing”’s long swampy jam has as much to do with vintage devil-on-the-bayou Creedence as it does anything – the howl slips into the occasional major mode, a nice contrast to the tune’s minor-themed underpinnings.

Best get-lost groove of the album: “Flight”, a darker cousin to Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”. Weirdest (but still fun) trip: the album-closing “Rising”, which sounds like a blend of backwards and forwards tracks spiraling around each other, never losing their course, but never fully revealing themselves, either. Johnson’s vocal drifts through and vaporizes; the groove is there without you even knowing it. How do they do it? Many shades of grey, boys and girls – many of shades of grey.

Actually, “How do they do it?” is a question that could be applied to Ripley Johnson’s other band, Moon Duo, as well. The cast is as advertised: just Johnson on guitar/vocals and Sanae Yamada on everything else that can be wrung out of her keyboards. Call them the White Stripes of psych rock if you’d like; the point is, the sound and vibe is full, interesting and – yes, by Jesus – fun.

I mean, listen to the title tune of the Duo’s new album Mazes – this is one of the first road tunes to come out of the Shjips family that’s meant to be played in the DAYLIGHT. Honest: doesn’t matter if you’re working with a single cheese-grater speaker in the center of the dash or a barrage of woofers and tweeters that threaten to break you loose from the tar when cranked – you need to play “Mazes” out on the open road some sunny afternoon and just let it roll.

“Fallout” idles at first, almost like it’s making up its mind to go spooky or get sunny – Yamada offers a dose of the former with a dollop of zombiekeys at the 1:00 mark; Johnson offers a chunk of what sounds like happy Dinosaur Jr. guitar right after that, totally swaying the emotion of the moment. The tug continues throughout the song, pinning you to the speakers.

It’s a tribute to the pair that a cut like “Goners” can stretch out for 7 minutes and 41 seconds without a yawn. The star of this one is Johnson’s lead work, soaring over top of a bed of thick guitar rumble and organ weaves. Johnson doesn’t play licks – his leads sound like mini-explorations, with each new twist based on the discovery preceding it. “In The Sun”, on the other hand, is a showcase for monster organ by Yamada. Doesn’t matter what’s going on with the vocals or the guitar – your attention is captured by that big-as-all-Hell key sound.

And then there’s “When You Cut”, a weird-but-cool-weird blend of churning Ramones-style rhythm guitar, happy/trippy keys, hand claps, blasts of vintage San Fran guitar squall, and a far-more-prominent-than-usual vocal by Johnson. Get out the beach blankets, kids – time to boogaloo! Hot fun in the summertime! Who knew Moon Duo had it in ‘em?

And that’s the deal with Mazes – just when you think you have the keys-and-organ-psych-band thing all figured out, Yamada and Johnson toss something you weren’t expecting your way.

My advice: catch it.

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