Having never been privy to the sounds and stylings of San Fran psych-rockers Wooden Shjips before now, I approached this review with some degree of caution. Not because I’m adverse to hearing something unfamiliar, of course, but because with words such as ‘experimental’ surrounding the band, one simply didn’t know what to expect. As it happens, however, Back to Land, the band’s fourth album, proves to be a far easier and more cohesive listen than anticipated; gone are the 8 minute freak-out jams of previous releases, allowing for a more streamlined, almost concise record, all the while keeping the band’s psy-soaked idiosyncrasies intact.
Kicking off proceedings with the eponymous ‘Back to Land’, it’s clear that the band are heading in more accessible direction. The psychedelia is there, though not in any great measures. Instead a deliciously fuzzy and rhythm section takes precedence, decorated by an organ and sparse guitar work. Conversely ‘Ruins’ takes a far dirtier, more guttural approach that smacks of The Doors’ ‘Otherside’.
An early highlight, ‘These Shadows’ off-sets the pace of the record in favour of a blissed-out lo-fi aesthetic that floats the track towards it’s respective conclusion. It’s charming, it’s melodious and it still manages to come packing Wooden Shjips’ obligatory bucket full of fuzz albeit with a sweeter, less biting edge than other tracks on Back to Land.
Minimalist is a word that surrounds the band, and one which, when added with ‘experimental’, conjured all sorts of images and ideas of what they might sound like, none of which proved true. While there certainly is a degree of minimalism at play across the record, particularly as far as the lyricism is considered, it still feels rich and vibrant, multi-textural. ‘Other Stars’ for instance, chugs along with a driving, industrial rhythm behind it whilst a perpetual understated drone provides a further layer of timbre to a track already teeming with psychedelic nuances. A high point of the track itself comes in the form of an effortless closing guitar segment in which the almost militant roll of the track is punctuated by a beautiful solo that lifts the whole song completely.
The real high point of the album comes in the form of its final track. ‘Everybody Knows’ is a melodic, dreamy affair, taking the band’s penchant for melodic minimalism to a new level. An optimistic keyboard hook forms the heart of the song, while the band’s trademark fuzz and indecipherable vocal track flesh it out. It purports a sense of optimism, of romance, something not afforded by some of Back to Land‘s more brooding moments, and it ends the record on an absolute, if not understated, high.
Having never listened to Wooden Shjips before this review, I couldn’t have been given a better place to start. Back to Land introduces one to their lo-fi aesthetics, the rich textures of their soundscapes and their appreciation of a counter-culture that found it’s home in their hometown. This is probably the band’s most accessible record to date, but it still manages to drag the sounds of the 60s kicking and screaming in to the contemporary with an almost guttural beauty.