How many Wooden Shjips do you actually need? As someone who receives their records for free, I may not be in the best position to make that call. But as I was playing “West”, their third album, again this morning, at least a couple of songs began in a way which made me think of “We Ask You To Ride”, and I wondered: is it a blessing or a curse for all of your songs to be so instantly identifiable that they start blending into one another?

How many Wooden Shjips do you actually need? As someone who receives their records for free, I may not be in the best position to make that call. But as I was playing “West”, their third album, again this morning, at least a couple of songs began in a way which made me think of “We Ask You To Ride”, and I wondered: is it a blessing or a curse for all of your songs to be so instantly identifiable that they start blending into one another?



I’m not entirely sure what the answer is, to be honest, but with one or two caveats I’m very much enjoying “West” today. As implied, the Wooden Shjips sound continues to be an inspired hybrid of, well, The Velvet Underground, Neu!, Suicide, The Doors, Neil Young, Spacemen 3 and Loop, and early Stooges (with particular reference to “We Will Fall”) – though this (from a live review, December 2010) holds very true: “What’s really striking this time, though, is how complete and insulated their soundworld is now: they’re so much of themselves that the kneejerk references… seem relatively irrelevant.” Unlike most dronerock bands, it’s the skipping groove, palpable even in the dirgiest tracks, which really sets Wooden Shjips apart. The lack of that locked-on rhythm section is, I suspect, one of the reasons why the most recent Moon Duo album didn’t totally grab me.

Another reason, though, was a weirdly Luddite response to Moon Duo’s audacity at using an actual studio to record in. “West” is also a step up for Wooden Shjips: not only recorded in a proper San Francisco studio, but mastered by an increasingly rehabilitated Sonic Boom and released on a next-tier indie label (Thrill Jockey). A further problem with the Moon Duo album recurs, as a consequence, in that Ripley Johnson’s vocals work brilliantly in a textural mix, but can sound a little frail when exposed by a pro recording set-up.

Which is not to say he’s exactly singing untreated a cappella here. The upside of the production is that the band sound ravishing, especially in headphones, with a new clarity and separation that doesn’t detract from their fuzzy momentum. The way Johnson’s solo’s cut through the mix, especially on “Flight”, is startling. As ever, his soloing is expansive and inventive, and his Neil Young fetish has started feeding into the structure of the songs as well as the solos: “Home” somewhat resembles “Hey Hey, My My”, with the Crazy Horse lurch replaced by Wooden Shjips’ signature bounce.

There’s a fractional departure, too, on “Looking Out”, which ups the pace and foregrounds Nash Whalen’s bobbling organ in such a way that it recalls early Stereolab, at least until the psychedelics kick in with Johnson’s solo. “Rising” also tries something else, being a track in reverse: a corny trick which they just about pull off – there are affinities with the meditative end of Neu!, if not the similar stunts on “Neu! 2” – though the backwards vocals spoil the mood a bit.

Is this Wooden Shjips’ best set of songs? Possibly not (I’d go for “Dos”, or one of the singles comps), but the formula remains compelling, and the technical upgrade adds a new dimension or two. Perhaps it’s worth expanding the collection, after all.