Sunday, September 11, 2011

review- wooden shjips- 'west'

Ah, yes... the new Wooden Shjips album. What can even be said about it? I’m not entirely sure how music like theirs can be evaluated since listening to and enjoying it seems to require different rules, standards and parameters from any other band in existence. All that the Shjips really care for is establishing and riding an amazing, fuzzy groove to the furthest reaches of its potential and then even further. Witnessing the Shjips live is basically like riding the ebb and flow of a never-ending and ever-evolving groove that they lay down over the course of a 45-minute or longer set. The overall experience and ambience is more important than the individual parts. Their records are constructed in similar ways—there is rarely much to latch onto in terms of a hook. If there is it’s never a clever vocal turn or a melody—it’s usually when each band member locks into separate parts of an amazing cog laying down one holy and invaluable thing… I’m sure you knew I was about to use the ‘g’ word for the 80th time.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way I’ll attempt to talk about ‘West.’ For one thing it’s better than ‘Dos.’ For whatever reason ‘Dos’ always fell flat when I’d attempt to listen to the entire thing in one go, which was strange because ‘Motorbike’ was an incredible song and several of the other tracks were similarly strong, but all lined up together all that one could notice would be the uniform production template stamped across each track. This is something that people are talking about when they say something is ‘samey.’ ‘Dos’ was best listened to in two halves. ‘West,’ however, is probably the most thrilling ride of any proper Shjips album (although the self-titled one falls into this category as well). Its greatest strength lies in the pristine production as well as Sonic Boom’s crystalline mastering (which can also be heard in all of its jaw-dropping beauty on ‘Tomboy,’ the newest Panda Bear release). I’ve always been fond of the old-school production found on previous Wooden Shjips records, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not nice to scrub the murk and mud (however effective it might be on something like the ‘Contact’ 12”) off of the tracks occasionally so that each gear of each groove is revealed in all of its carefully conceived and maintained glory. The Shjips churn like a well-greased engine. It’s pretty amazing to be able to actually hear this work with such remarkable clarity. What’s more, a pet-peeve of mine is when clarity takes the place of glorious fuzziness where appropriate. Fuzz isn’t supposed to sound nice, it’s supposed to sound distorted, dirty and swampy. When it’s been cleaned up or even sharpened too much all of the fun is gone (listen to the new Bardo Pond if you don’t know what I’m talking about—that is a band that knows how fuzz should always sound). Despite the clean-sounding nature of these recordings the key element of fuzziness has not been removed from Ripley’s hypnotic guitar proto-riffs and restless solo work. I feel like if ‘West’ had the same level of gloss as Bardo Pond’s newest release it would be just right, but here they’re damn close.

Musically it strays a bit from sounding typical of what Wooden Shjips have been up to lately (the aforementioned ‘Contact’ 12” has no equivalent here, for example). The pace has been picked up and the laid-back vibe of some past material has been ditched in favor of something more upbeat and driving. The keyboard is used more as a melodic foil here than an insanity-inducing drone machine (not a bad thing in my eyes, just to be clear) which actually points out the similarities between ‘West’ and the incredibly recent ‘Mazes’ and serves to point out how much more vital and diverse Moon Duo is turning out to be when listened to next to the Shjips (which, honestly, how could you not?). Once again, I’d like to stress that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the Shjips have never been about musical exploration on a stylistic level, whereas Moon Duo has explored and pulled off a great deal more stylistic variation (listen to ‘Escape’ and ‘Killing Time’ and tell me I’m wrong) the Shjips have been steadfast in their mission and loyalty to the groove. In a lot of ways this is what I feel makes the Shjips a more engaging and thrilling live entity where Moon Duo excel more in their recorded output. It seems to me that Ripley has split his priorities in half and dedicated a band to each half dependant upon which band suits which half more.

I did another one of those label preorders on this one and have been living with this record for a week and a half now. This particular one came with the amazing ‘Phonograph’ 7”. The b-side is a remix by the Peaking Lights of ‘Lights Out,’ which hopefully points to more of what the Shjips will pursue in the future—talk about a psychedelic, grooving slow-burner. Listening to the track it’s impossible not to get lost in it. As if that weren’t enough the a-side ranks amongst the peppiest and most spirited of ‘West’s best tracks. I’m having difficulty saying whether not ‘West’ is a great album, as comparing it to others I’ve heard seems pointless. The Wooden Shjips are so firmly their own entity that what I would have to say matters very little. What I will say is that it’s as fun and engaging of a listen of theirs as I’ve heard in a long time. It’s kind of similar to the ‘Vol. 2’ singles collection, but as a fully-conceived and purposefully realised album and statement of purpose.

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