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Wooden Shjips – Back To Land/live at The Grand Social with Twinkranes

14 December 2013

Set phasers to phase.

Listening to the recent Wooden Shjips album Back to Land is a very different experience to seeing the band play the album live. That’s obviously true of every record. Every artist. Every band. But some more than others. And Wooden Shjips more than most.

Fortunately both experiences are excellent.

Wooden Shjips - Back To LandBack to Land (Thrill Jockey)is as good a slice of mellow spacerock as anything released in the past ten years. From the first seconds of the opening (title) track through to the end of “Everybody Knows,” the groove never relents. But it never gets predictable. It travels from a west coast of America haunted by the spirit of Jerry Garcia to Lou Reed‘s New York. It passes through the airspace of the early Spiritualized on its way to early ’70s Düsseldorf. And all the while you feel the presence of Julian Cope, nodding enigmatically as he sips absinthe with the ghost of Jim Morrison.

But I don’t want that mass of references to undersell how great the music is. Or make the album sound derivative. Sure, Back to Land doesn’t hide from those who influenced it… but it takes them to a new and different place. A place inhabited by Wooden Shjips alone. If anything, Back to Land feels like an album released by a band that shouldn’t exist… a band from a Thomas Pynchon novel… intense, weird, hypnotic… drawing on a multitude of influences but fusing them all into something exhilarating and unique.

As an album it feels very cohesive. It’s cut from a single piece of cloth and makes more sense as an album than it does as a collection of individual songs. And yet, right at its heart is a song called “These Shadows,” which sits seamlessly alongside the others, yet stands out as a peak. In five and a half minutes of drone and fuzz, Wooden Shjips distil all that is magical and inspiring about The Thirteenth Floor Elevators and present it as something utterly fresh, utterly present. With a vocal that faintly echoes Roy Orbison, the song has a passion that dispels any hint of nostalgia and yet carries within it the essence of sixties psychedelia.

“These Shadows” is up there in my top two or three tracks of the year.

Back to Land – even at its most intense, as with the rolling urgency of “Other Stars” – a bullet-train ride through a landscape filled with people who have just discovered aliens exist but aren’t yet sure whether to celebrate or hide – is not an album you’d put on if you were in the mood for something hectic. It swoops and it motors briskly along, but it soothes and lilts as well.

When you see them live though, it’s a much noisier experience… more angular… more Düsseldorf less San Francisco. And that’s no bad thing. Set and setting dictate much. Beer not tea. A dark rock club not a comfy chair. More fuzz, less phase. It makes perfect sense.

But even before Wooden Shjips make their entrance, the mood was being appropriately set by the venue and by the incredible support. Dublin’s Grand Social is a relatively new addition to the city. Previously known as Pravda, I’d never ventured inside as it never looked in the slightest bit appealing. But walking through the place (the gig was in “The Loft” – on the top floor. Obviously.) it seems like the new owners have an appreciation for what makes a good rock club – lots of different bars connected by winding but not overly-narrow corridors, a big beer garden, and a performance space separate from the main bars – so there’s no sense of “something else happening over there” while the band are on.

Bad performances are very rarely saved by good venues, but I’ve been to plenty of gigs where a bad venue has ruined what would otherwise have been a fine performance. I know for a fact that Tom Waits played a great show in Dublin a few years back, but I also know the venue was too bloody big for the sound-system and where I was sitting the music was being regularly drowned out by people several rows away whispering to each other. So yeah. There’s that.

Therefore, let us take a moment to be thankful to places like The Loft in The Grand Social. It joins the likes of The Academy, The Button Factory and Crawdaddy as venues that won’t get between you and the band.

Or in this case, bands. Plural. Because it’s a near miracle that Wooden Shjips didn’t get completely upstaged by Twinkranes. By the end of the support set I was thinking “I wouldn’t like to have to follow that”. I’d never heard of Twinkranes prior to Saturday night, but I’ll be tracking down their stuff in the near future. Flanked by two guys with synths, the drummer/singer was a man possessed. It was like Sonic Youth and Front 242 got on stage and had a fight over who got custody of Mick Ronson‘s hair. It was spectacular.

No doubt I’m late to the party with Twinkranes and I’m now about to urge you to track down a band you’ve been listening to for years… but just in case you’re as clueless as I was about them… track down Twinkranes (check out “Double Negative” online and then go out and buy their records, as I feel confident you’ll want to once you’ve listened to it).

I was genuinely disappointed when Twinkranes left the stage. And dazed. And very blown away. And more than a little bit angry that music this good, this life-affirming, this uncompromising should be playing as support to a band in a loft. While Simon Cowell and his ilk fill countless stadia with a soul-destroying self-parody of human culture. It makes you want to burn the entirety of western civilization to the ground.

I hope that’s the effect Twinkranes were aiming for.

Now, I don’t know if Wooden Shjips took some kind of unconscious cue from Twinkranes or if every gig they play is as hard and as heavy as Saturday night, but far from being overshadowed by the support, they simply continued the same journey. This time while projecting a kind of white-noise static-based psychedelic lightshow onto the entire room. Musical purists might scoff at such trickery, but let them do their scoffing far away while I enjoy the pretty colours. Those early California acid tests with The Grateful Dead – or The Warlocks as they were at the time – soundtracking a cultural revolution that was happening at parties and rock gigs… you can’t imagine that happening under a flickering fluorescent light, and you can’t imagine it happening with a guy standing in a spotlight. It happened in dark rooms lit by projectors. In rooms where the musicians seemed to blend into the audience, where an experience was being shared, not produced and consumed.

Yeah, so I’m a sucker for lighting rooms with projectors. But as Wooden Shjips demonstrated so ably… it works!

Because I’m only really familiar with the last album, I didn’t recognise a lot of the tracks. But even the ones from Back to Land were harder and grittier when played live. So when they play “Other Stars” for instance, we are left in no doubt that hiding from the aliens seems like the best course of action. There’s a menace present at The Grand Social that definitely wasn’t on the record. But the sense of movement, of rushing through a new and startling place, that hasn’t changed.

We’re almost too stunned to applaud when the bullet-train shudders to a halt. And then seconds later we’re hurtling along again. The lyrics emerge in clusters from the crashing waves of music and distortion… “blurring all sense of time”… that’s from “Ruins” off the new album, but it’s transformed into something huge and imposing… suddenly we’re surrounded by nomadic skyscrapers.

I never really got the music of The Grateful Dead. I love what they represent. I love the fact they existed. I have nothing but respect for the band and what they achieved. The world is a far better place for having them in it. But I never really got the music. Which is why it’s so strange that I keep wanting to compare them to Wooden Shjips. Because with Wooden Shjips, there’s no question about the music. It’s majestic and it’s vital. It does everything I want music to do. But at the same time there’s a definite sense they’re exploring some of the same soundscapes as The Grateful Dead. And it’s more than just the obvious “they both do extended psychedelic guitar breaks.”

The world is different now, so the audience is different. And the music is definitely different. But the trip is strangely familiar. And that’s as it should be; Wooden Shjips feel like a band of this time. And they feel like a timeless band.

-Jim Bliss-

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