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Wooden Shjips – West

Thrill Jockey

Three young men sit in a small room. Around them lie discarded food cartons, an ancient black and white Telecaster, and several battered pairs of Converse All-Stars. The faces of the young men would normally be obscured by thick curtains of long hair, but on this occasion a fug of smoke hangs in lazy striations across the air, so dense and impenetrable that they can scarcely see one another anyway. The improvised bowl of the converted two-litre plastic Coke bottle gives forth its last wispy puff of smoke, and expires quietly. A voice – cracked and feeble – finally emerges from one of the young men, “Oh man, that really did my head in, I’m wasted. And Spine of God’s just finished. For fuck’s sake, someone put something else on.”

It’s a truly pitiable scenario. None of the three young men are up to the task at hand. To stand and sort out the next album risks a headrush of epic proportions. And even if the room-spin can be overcome, what to put on next? To delve into the past once more? To go for another tried-and-trusted classic? Not On the Beach again surely? No, no, not that. But going with something contemporary is so risky. What if it sounds all wrong? Too harsh! Too inappropriate! The mood will be shattered. Christ, this is a nightmare. Remember though, it’s always darkest just before the dawn. Help is at hand…

Unseen forces are at work. Like the work of some benign musical poltergeist comes the distinctive click, click, clicking of the thumbwheel on a phantom iPod. Suddenly the room fills with a massive fuzz riff and the beautiful, warm, melodious tone of a Farfisa organ. It’s like Spacemen 3 and The Fuzztones are having some kind of celestial Battle of the Bands in a distant afterlife. But this is no mere imagining. The Wooden Shjips have arrived, now, and it’s the perfect answer to crisis in the room. It’s old, it’s classic, it’s new, it’s fresh. All at once! It’s their new album, West, and it’s coming for us all through the smoke.

The first track, “Black Smoke Rise,” is a pure-breed Psyche rocker, all Superfuzz Bigmuff guitars and hazy vocals, the organ underpinning but never dominating. Feet are tapping now, and one of the young men is wondering whether there might even be some pizza left in that box. Before he can find the answer, though, track two, “Crossing” begins, slower, dirtier and with a short, insistent bridge so mean that it forces one of the young men to grab the Telecaster and start playing along. For a moment the other two wonder whether Shjips guitarist Erik ‘Ripley’ Johnson is actually in the room it sounds so great. To any outside listener, he’s just twanging away at the thing aimlessly and making a real caterwauling. Jesus, thank Heaven it’s not plugged in.

“Lazy Bones” is played double time, propelled by some rolling cymbals, and gifted with sumptuous passages of psychedelic guitar work worthy of Stacy Sutherland in his prime. “Home” is reminiscent of ole ‘Shakey’ himself, a solid, jagged hook straight out of the Neil Young songbook, and a guitar break that could take you right out on the mainline. It’s certainly taking the occupants of the room right out there, they’ve all struggled to their feet and are furiously playing air guitar, hunched over, heads nodding away in time, and those playing air sound much better than the guy on the Tele.

“Flight” brings back the Farfisa, allied with some subtle maracas, for a seven minute journey to the centre of the mind. No-one has done Pysch as well as this for many, many years; explorational yet never indulgent, slow but never a dirge; Hell, you could even dance to this after a honey slide or two. “Looking Out” piles on a more grinding effect to the guitar and some tremulous vocals that suggest that Alan Vega has grabbed the microphone and fended off the band with his Zimmer Frame. The closer, “Rising,” drifts in on a cloud of droning fuzz, non-diegetic sound effects and general backwards headfuckery – think a smoother “Are You Experienced.” Well, have you ever been experienced? The young men certainly have, but the narcotic effects of the “Rising” have taken full hold, and they have once more sunk back into their torpor, exhausted by the furious bout of air guitar. “I really want some chocolate milk.”

The album stays for only seven tracks, yet it feels full and rich, and, although it never pushes any particularly new boundaries, Wooden Shjips refresh the genre in a way that makes this more than re-treading old ground and more like restoring an antique; it’s vintage stuff, but it doesn’t sound old or hackneyed. And any band that gets asked for an ATP command performance by Jim Jarmusch is most certainly doing something right; West is compelling evidence of that.

It leaves only one problem though. “Shit, what do we put on NOW?”

-David Solomons-

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