ALBUM REVIEW: Wooden Shjips | West

written by Chris Familton

San Francisco psych lords Wooden Shjips have had a great run of releases so far with no misfires among the albums, EPs and compilations they have issued since forming back in 2006. West is the band’s fifth album and finds them shifting into a cleaner, more concise musical space. Sure all their trademark signifiers like the droning organ, krautrock drumming, ambivalent vocals and fuzzed out guitars are till there but the production and sharper song editing provides a fresh angle on the band.

Opener Black Smoke Rise sets the scene with a narcotic nod to droning psychedelic rock and predecessors like BRMC and Jesus & Mary Chain. It hits a groove and sticks with it for the duration of the song, drawing the listener right into the interior of the album. Crossing features some razor wire guitar distortion before Lazy Bones triples the tempo and a heady pop song emerges. Home harnesses the loose, laid back vibe of Neil Young’s work with Crazy Horse while Flight is a slow burning snake charmer of a song, weaving space rock guitar lines in and out of the music. Rising moves forward even though they’ve flipped the recording into reverse. It kind of works, much in the same way a bonus track does, but makes you wonder what the normal direction would sound like. Wooden Shjips have done well to restrict their songs to under seven minutes as their economy serves them well and prevents any descent into mindless noodling.

Previous albums conjured moods of fog or clouds of dust but West is a decidedly more upbeat and lively collection of songs. The overall feel is of a summer afternoon cruise down the highway with the low-angle sun burning holes in your retina. West is the soundtrack for the approaching summer.

this review was first published in The Drum Media




Establishing yourself outside a band where you have gained a loyal following can be a tough task. There are the perils of not being as good as the group or it being seen as a side-project – a folly when the office is closed for the holidays. Johnson has spent the last five years as lead guitarist with San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips before adding Moon Duo to his discography in 2009. A duo with Sanae Yamada, the pair work in similar hypnotic psych territory to Wooden Shjips but take a minimal approach based around guitar, keyboards and drum samplers resulting in repetition and dissonance. Mazes is their second full length and Johnson is keen to stress how seriously he takes Moon Duo as an ongoing musical concern. “It’s all equally important for me. I don’t see it as a side project and I hope to add more projects as I can make the time. I actually spend more time working and touring with Moon Duo at this point, though Wooden Shjips is probably better known. Moon Duo was simply a desire to make more music. Wooden Shjips is not a full time band, so I had a lot of musical ideas and energy to channel into Moon Duo. We also wanted to tour more often.”

There are a number of obvious influences that combine to form the sound of the pair’s music. Bands like Suicide, Neu and Hawkwind are embedded in the fabric of the music and though Johnson acknowledges those acts he is also quick to point out that himself and Yamada draw from a wide and varied musical world. “Those are all bands we love but there are so many others. We listen to so much different music, we’re like sponges. But there is a strong personal element to the music that we are bound by. We don’t try to sound like anyone else. I think we just may have similar sensibilities as the bands mentioned.”

The new album Mazes has a very widescreen and open sound, not something one would expect from a duo. Johnson doesn’t see the number of personal as a limitation, instead he approaches the songs with an open mind to all possibilities. “We were going for a big rock sound, despite being a duo. I’m very much into layering. The Rolling Stones’ Jimmy Miller-produced albums were a big touchstone (Sticky Fingers, Exile, etc…), though obviously we don’t sound like them. We recorded a lot of guitar tracks. The next one will likely go in a different direction.”

By allowing themselves the freedom to add those layers to the studio recordings they created a challenge of replicating the sound live. The solution was to restrict the songs to their bare essentials and build noise around them. “We don’t try to recreate the recordings though we do play the songs. It’s a more electric, living sound. We build drum patterns using a sampler, then perform with keyboard and guitar, with live looping for some parts. It’s fairly stripped down but we can make a surprising amount of noise with just two people. And of course our songs are very minimal to begin with. That’s an important part of our musical sensibility. We certainly feed off the audience’s energy as much as possible. Some crowds are more reserved so we have to look within a bit more, but that’s just a different type of interaction. We are more on the knife’s edge with Moon Duo. There is less support than with a quartet. It keeps us sharp though.”

Though Moon Duo create tightly wound, driving music they also present it in a visceral and organic way. If Wooden Shjips is the sound of getting out of your mind then Moon Duo is the sound of journeying inside it. “We recognize that things are not as they appear on the surface and the music is a reflection of that,” states Johnson.

 this interview was first published in The Drum Media

ds…twenty five – our favourite releases of 2010

That’s it then, 2010 done and dusted and although it wasn’t the best year ever for new music there were some damn fine records released. This year we’re seeing an even more eclectic mix of flavours coming through from witch house, minimal electronica, americana, experimental and the all encompassing indie tag. Have a look at what we loved through the year, click on the covers for linked reviews and please leave comments and let us know your faves…

2010 has also been another stellar year for reissues, remasters and deluxe versions and honourable mentions must go to:

  • David Bowie | Station To Station
  • The Rolling Stones | Exile On Main Street
  • Iggy Pop & James Williamson | KIll City
  • Dexys Midnight Runners | Searching For The Lost Soul Rebels
  • Frankie Goes To Hollywood | Welcome To The Pleasuredome
  • The Cure | Disintegration

25. Spoon | Transference

24. Liars | Sisterworld

23. Wavves | KIng Of The Beach

22. Surf City | Kudos

21. Simon Carter | The Black Book Of The Universe

20. Mount Kimbie | Crooks & Lovers

19. James Blake | Klavierwerke EP

18. Forest Swords | Dagger Paths EP

17. Jeremy Jay | Splash

16. Mark Moldre | The Waiting Room

15. Damien Jurado | Saint Bartlett

14. Deerhunter | Halcyon Digest

13. Gayngs | Relayted

12. Zola Jesus | Stridulum II

11. Wooden Shjips | Vol. 2

10. CocoRosie | Grey Oceans

9. Yeasayer | Odd Blood

8. The Black Keys | Brother

7. Tame Impala | Innerspeaker

6. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti | Before Today

5. Best Coast | Crazy For You

4. Beach House | Teen Dream

3. Die! Die! Die! | Form

2. The Soft Pack | The Soft Pack

1. Arcade Fire | The Suburbs

ON TOUR: GOLDEN PLAINS first announcement…

tour dsdinosaurjr

Golden Plains have announced the first batch of acts to appear at the Meredith Supernatural Amphitheatre on March 6-8 2010.

Dinosaur Jr
Dirty Projectors

The Big Pink
Tame Impala
Midnight Juggernauts
Super Wild Horses
Gaslamp Killer
Nashville Pussy
Jeffry Lewis and The Junkyard
The Cruel Sea
The Crayon Fields
Andee Frost
Wooden Shjips

Royal Headache