Although they call their latest album Back to Land, Wooden Shjips seems to be lost at sea.
On their fourth LP, the band uses a mix of Doors-inspired organ and fuzz-out guitar riffs to create a collection of trance-like, five-minute trips. “Ghouls” features a repeating organ riff that sounds so classic, you might wonder if you’ve heard it somewhere else before. The riff draws you in with its mellow tones, inducing a pleasant, trippy listening experience. However, these feats are also the main problems with Back To Land. The album is so repetitive, so mellow, and so trance inducing that you get lost in it fairly quickly.
It is undeniable that Wooden Shjips know their psychedelic rock history—the album cover is a wonderful collage of images that demonstrates that. But the band seems to take these older elements out of context. They mirror, in some ways, the repetition and jamming-base of bands like Canned Heat and The Dead, but they forget that the key to making this kind of music interesting is variation. The instruments and vocals do not stray from their neighborhoods, leading to extreme homogeneity among the tracks. The organ and drums, in particular, suffer this fate the worst. On all of the songs these instruments rarely vary from their primary melody, and this gets old quickly.
A prime offender, “Ruin,” repeats the same organ, guitar, and drum riffs for its five-minute span. Frontman Ripley Johnson’s vocals are so spacey and soft that it sounds as if he might slip into the aether at a moment’s notice, let alone allow the lyrics to be decipherable.
The trance-like atmosphere causes an unfortunate bleeding effect across the tracks. You can never be really sure when one song begins, or if it even ends, due to their uncanny similarities.
Wooden Shjips are able to salvage a few tracks, though. The band brings in different aesthetics to a select few songs, and these liven up the album. The acoustic guitars on “These Shadows” bring a huge shift in timbre and mood from other tracks, while the flute-like synthesizers on “Everybody Knows” are a relief from the standard organ sound across the LP. Johnson even rips a flurry of notes on “Ghouls,” demonstrating apt precision on “Servants.”
Back To Land is fine for spacing out or creating background buzz, but not for much else.
Voice’s Choices: “Back To Land,” “Everybody Knows”
Originally Published in the Georgetown Voice 11/20/13