Just remembered today that I should post this: my column from the last issue of the mag, devoted to Wooden Shjips and Ripley‘s awesome spin-off, Moon Duo. The new issue of Uncut is out this week, though my column on Sir Richard Bishop was necessarily spiked to make room for the Alex Chilton tribute; I’ll run that here in the next day or two.
In the rather arcane world which this column inhabits, you could just about describe San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips as superstars. Unlike Natural Snow Buildings, the French duo I focused on last month, Wooden Shjips’ records have been heard by more than a couple of dozen people. In fact, they’ve become one of those underground bands adopted, to some cautious degree, by the indie mainstream. Bobby Gillespie used their music to soundtrack a fashion show, incongruously enough, while Alex Turner was recently moved to tell NME, “I like them because they’re, well, quite good. Their music is perfect to leave on while you go about your business.”
Faint praise, seemingly, but then a typical Wooden Shjips song has an inexorable, rolling momentum that can ebb in and out of your consciousness; a deep psychedelic locked groove that works insidiously. Hypnotically, you could even say, if you were to use one of the fallback signifiers of dronerock that seems particularly apposite here.
If you’ve not heard the quartet before, last year’s second album proper, “Dos” (Holy Mountain), is a decent place to start. But the formula doesn’t vary hugely – or, some might say, at all: their latest compilation of limited-edition singles and so on, “Vol. 2” (on Sick Thirst), is very nearly as good.
Ostensibly, Wooden Shjips have worked out a brilliant way of updating late ‘60s psychedelia and subterranean garage rock. A typical song – let’s say “Down By The Sea”, from Dos – seems to draw on the energies of both The Doors and The Velvet Underground, while maintaining a springy dance imperative that could’ve been transported from a 1966 Family Dog happening in their hometown. As their songs drive on remorselessly, the Shjips seem to be the last point on a continuum which also includes The Stooges, Neu! and La Dusseldorf, Suicide, Loop and Spacemen 3 (Wooden Shjips covered that last band’s “I Hear It” on a 2009 single, incidentally; presumably that one’ll turn up on “Vol. 3”).
Unlike most of those bands, however, Wooden Shjips’ modus operandi also has room for some trad rock allusions (that CSN-mutating name, a lyrical wink to The Band in “Motorbike”) and many expansive guitar solos from frontman Ripley Johnson – hence an eyes-on-stalks cover of Neil’s “Vampire Blues” on Vol 2, also a highlight of their sell-out Club Uncut show last August.
Ripley Johnson’s intensely focused productivity has also resulted in a first album by his other band, Moon Duo. It’s a fairly safe bet that Wooden Shjips won’t be entirely alienated by Moon Duo’s “Escape” (Woodsist), since Johnson doesn’t radically change his aesthetic between projects. Earlier singles suggested Moon Duo were treading a fractionally woozier path, or at least plugging in a drum machine and privileging that Suicide influence. The four tracks on “Escape”, though, repeatedly find Johnson cueing up the trancebeat then embarking on yet another fuzzy voyage of discovery: “Motorcycle, I Love You”, “Stumbling 22nd St” and the swinging “In The Trees” are as generous and oceanic guitar jams as anything he’s served up in Wooden Shjips. As these songs stretch out towards the event horizon, there’s a sense – just as there is with Wooden Shjips, of course – that sometimes, all a band needs is one great idea. Their parameters might be narrow, but the possibilities contained within give every indication of being infinite.