While San Fransisco acts like Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, and The Fresh & Onlys have gotten plenty of national buzz over the past couple of years, the deep fog jams of psych garage outfit Wooden Shjips have held sway in the city since their mid-aughts early days. Back To Land (the quartet’s fourth record) both lives up to its title and bares the results of a now-seasoned band, their footing a little surer, the focus a little clearer.
Part of that change, if their statement regarding the album is to be believed, stems from two band members moving to Oregon, as if the very fog of the Bay has been distilled out the mix. Sure, Ripley Johnson’s vocals still take on reverb on tracks like the muscular “Ghouls”, and the phasing guitar scuzz of “In the Roses” (there’s an insistence of Portland’s importance, again) fits the Shjips bill, but the mix as a whole has moved steadily out of the garage and into a proper studio.
As is the case with Wooden Shjips’ prior records, the lead guitar is largely the key to the success of these songs. Bassist Dusty Jermier and drummer Omar Ahsanuddin have long ago proven their ability to produce churning tidal grooves, and Ripley’s vocals match them effortlessly. The variables, then, are the lead riffs and solos. With the haze lifted, the loose, meandering takes (as on the sleepy “These Shadows”, and the low-simmering “Servants”) aren’t nearly as effective or moody as they had been on albums like West.
The amount of mystic, mesmeric atmosphere that Wooden Shjips trade in on Back To Land, though, they get back in accessibility. The opening title track is particularly welcoming, with Nash Whalen’s organ ripped straight from a Modern Lovers record paired with barebones rhythm and light acoustic touches. The wall of fuzz has been replaced with a garden hedge. Whether that inviting warmth is a direct result of the move to Bridgetown or a band growing into clarity is unimportant. Either way, Back To Land is the most forgiving, clear album in the Wooden Shjips catalog, an interesting step for a band once lauded for their obscurity.
Essential Tracks: “Ghouls”, “In the Roses”