San Francisco stoner-rockers crawl sun-blind from Spacemen 3’s shadow.
Andrew Perry 2011
California’s Bay Area has latterly reinvigorated its late-60s heritage as Mecca for exploratory psychedelic rock, with free-jamming nutjobs such as Sun Araw and Carlton Melton once more turning on, tuning in, but most importantly dropping the kind of far-out and mind-expanding recordings no-one could rightly claim to have heard before.
San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips have made more headway on this side of the Atlantic than most, with a slightly more conventional, even earthbound variant. It combines The Seeds’ garage caveman thud, krautrock’s locked-groove hypnosis and, most obviously to Brit ears, Spacemen 3’s ethereally-voiced pulsations.
This third album was even mastered (though not produced) by former Spaceman, Sonic Boom; yet, ironically, it’s their first record really to transcend that influence. West, unlike its predecessors, was beamed out from a bona-fide studio, not their dingy old rehearsal room. Thus, their familiar smoke-filled basement gloom lifts, and here finally is a psychedelic audio experience with sufficient focus and momentum to ‘take you there’ without dozing off on the job.
Black Smoke Rise opens at a reasonable clip, with an amps-at-11 fuzz-riff, swirly 60s organ, circling-down-the-plughole bass patterns and catchy lysergic invocations from mainman Erik ‘Ripley’ Johnson, before Kraftwerk synth expanses and Johnson’s FX-mangled solo lead out further into the stratosphere.
In advance publicity, Johnson, a silver-bearded New Yorker-by-birth, has revealed that West is loosely themed around California’s wide-open spaces, where the combo regularly camp out, to perceive their cosmic tininess. Crossing, mirroring the cover’s gaping snap of Golden Gate Bridge, is a desert inner-space trip – like The Doors’ Take Me to the Other Side, minus Jim Morrison’s brutish ego.
However, where Wooden Shjips really start to break new turf here is on Lazy Bones, which, contrary to its title, rattles along fast on a maraca-rustlin’ Bo Diddley beat – proper, urban rock‘n’roll! Hell, it even clocks in at under four minutes. Later on, Looking Out is similarly hi-octane, with a harp-blowin’ intro and Johnson squawking semi-audibly, like a transported Alan Vega.
Thanks to those two pile-drivers keeping the energy levels up, Johnson’s lengthy slow-mo fret-fiddling in the outlying tracks feels loose and liberated, rather than slack and repetitive. Unexpectedly, these star-sailors are tripping the light, fantastically.