Wooden Shjips, a distant but important cousin to the emerging kraut-rock revival, started as a casual project amongst four guys not looking to quit their day jobs. The music was originally designed for instant cryonization, with hopes of being plucked from a dusty flea market collection by some brave record geek ten years later. I suppose this vision stems from the thrill of hearing something without context or press, or as it is often called, “the Paper Bag Theory.” But after the surprise success of their first two full-lengths, we find the Shjips partially abandoning this mantra for something more modern with their new album Dos.
After culminating a sound that revels in its San Franciscan backdrop, the most notable change on this record comes from its incorporation of east coast influences, especially New York. The vocals of frontman Ripley Johnson, previously cited as an homage to Jim Morrison, are now more in tune with the manic posturing of Suicide’s Alan Vega. The opener, “Motorbike”, is much more keen on amphetamines than the acid vibes that fueled their self-titled album. It sounds like a loose cover of the Jesus & Mary Chain’s “The Living End,” with it’s pinwheel distortion and nervous aggression. This decidedly dirty track doesn’t characterize the entire album, but it does echo an interesting shift in the group’s presentation that we first saw on their most recent single, “Vampire Blues”.
“For So Long” returns to the rhythm heavy aesthetic we know them for. The muffled bass and snapped drums lock in tight and don’t budge for the whole song, which allows the surprisingly emotive guitarwork to build up steam. Typically, the their high points are their full-fledged freakouts, that rival just about anybody else’s nowadays. Seriously, 5 hour energy shots don’t hold a candle to the Shjips’ Volume 1 when you need to pull an all-nighter, but most of the grooves on Dos feel like being sucked into highway hypnosis.
One of only two lengthy jams on the album, “Down by the Sea,” starts with the same motorik/molasses tension from the rhythm section that well, frankly, almost all of their songs do. I am relieved when the lead guitar is introduced a few minutes in, not to relish in any sort of solo-flaunting (these guys are decidedly non-musicians), it serves rather to take pressure off the rhythm section and summon a second-wind for the next movement. The sad part is after the, oh say, seven-minute mark, a lot of their songs turn into similar, predictable burning heaps of fuzz. And not to suggest that his simple riffs don’t compliment the songs, but if i were the bass player, I’d make sure to always have some good reading material on hand.
Dos ends with the surprisingly poppy “Fallin’.” The distortion is turned down from total scuzz to almost clean, as a glass organ floats around innocuously. It almost sounds like Fujiya & Miyagi at times. Delicately-delayed guitar picking smoothes it over into something completely alien to the Shjips standard MO, but has a memorability that most of the other tracks can’t achieve by sticking to their roots. Now, having deviated a bit, commitment seems to be Wooden Shjips’ catch-22. Their best jams are forged from simple patterns played with utmost vigor, but this has left them sounding less inspired three records in. Dos is clearly aware of this trap, and initiates a transitionary period experimenting with different influences in hopes to remedy. However, there are still some killer tracks, and I’m still convinced that Wooden Shjips are capable of great things. They’ve taken the oaths, they’ve got the religion, but unfortunately, Dos find them struggling as missionaries.
Dos is available April 14th through the good folks at Holy Mountain.
Fagen-Becker Quality Rating