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Published: 2013/11/15
by Brian Robbins

Wooden Shjips
Back To Land

Thrill Jockey Records

You can’t judge a book by its cover and all that, but – come on : one look at the jacket for Wooden Shjips’ new Back To Land album and you just know the lads have applied some psychedelicized lightness to their already mind-bending sound. Wild-ass shapes and colors peek out through a black-and-white Swiss-cheesed sleeve, offering hints of trippyness and Crumb-style brain gumbo – which you can’t help but look at and go, “Oh, boy …”

Now, don’t get me wrong: this is not “Shjips Lite”, boys and girls – this is still the Wooden Shjips we’ve come to know and love: wompmasters Dusty Jermier (bass) and Omar Ahsanuddin on drums; Nash Whalen doling out swirling clouds of madman organ; and Ripley Johnson on vox and all-your-head-can-eat guitar. Back To Land is brimming full of tunes that are absolutely made for the road (a trademark of past Shjips albums). But there are some subtle flavorings on Back To Land that we’ve never experienced in the Shjips’ sound before … and they’re mighty, mighty tasty.

Take the album-opening title track, for instance: yes, we have a classic Wooden Shjips soundscape, with the bass and drums laying down a cool midnight beach party beat, while Whalen’s keys swirl over the sands and Ripley’s guitar chugs along like a chopper running the surf line. Where things are a little different this time out is when Ripley kicks into his first lead break at the 2:44 mark – there’s no fuzz; no wolverine teeth; no Martian love goo: just raw-toned Gurley/Cipollina-style blues guitar, proof that sometimes you don’t need anything ‘cept pick, strings, and fingers to get to the center of one’s brain.

Then again, the Lon-Chaney-on-acid organ and heavily-echoed grease gun guitar of “Ruins” ain’t a bad thing, either – a’bumping and a’grinding over top of Jermier and Ahsanuddin’s amped-up Howlin’ Wolf trance rhythm. “Ghouls” – some of that Shjips-style driving music I mentioned earlier – is more about focus than speed. With a swooshing roar that’s a cross between a space ship and a ’49 Hudson, the band digs in and lets fly – county lines roll under the tires like phone poles and the headlights blew out three states ago but who cares as Ripley goes into an unadulterated guitar :::freakout::: and you steer/shift/heel/toe/palm with Dean Moriarty-like precision. Yes, yes, yes – what a frigging ride.

And there’s more where that came from: the underpinnings of “Other Stars” are pure psychedelic diesel; Ahsanuddin’s drum work on “In The Roses” is almost-but-not-quite rockabilly (imagine if Slim Jim Phantom went over to the Dark Side); and the sultry “These Shadows” would’ve been the slow dance of the night at the Carousel Ballroom in ’68.

For the album’s final scene – “Everybody Knows” – the Shjips don their leather jackets and slick their hair back, striking the perfect balance between wistful forlornness and kerosene-sweat-soaked, teeth-grinding madness. No sha-la-las here, my friend – but it sounds like there might be an acoustic guitar tucked in there somewhere … I kid you not.

Overall, Back To Land finds Wooden Shjips evolving and expanding their sound with a firm grip on what made them great to begin with. Dontcha worry about a thing – these lads are excellent drivers. Yes, yes, yes.

*****

Brian Robbins keeps a ’49 Hudson in the garage over at www.brian-robbins.com

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