The dark star that lurks beneath flower power
Wooden Shjips released their "Dance, California/Clouds over Earthquake" 7-inch single (Sick Thirst) last year in much the same way as they had their instigating, self-released Shrinking Moon for You 10-inch: packaged in an unassuming, clear plastic sleeve with hardly any information besides song titles. Beyond sending bloggers and journalists into a tizzy over their sexy, squalling grooves, this set confirmed Wooden Shjips as essential California. While Devendra Banhart and Vetiver reel in mellow '70s album rock and Comets on Fire carry the torch of scraping psychedelia in the key of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Wooden Shjips recover the dark star lurking behind flower power in groups like Blue Cheer and yes, the Doors. The A-side is all feverish face melt, but it's on "Clouds over Earthquake" that the band really sets the agenda. A shapely guitar lead dissolves into the heat waves of a droning pulse, eventually giving way to band leader Ripley Johnson's echo-chamber vocal: "Fire / The sun is rising / Cut through the black clouds / Over earthquake."
Their early records sold out their limited pressings long ago, a fact the band took into consideration when packaging the first 2,000 copies of its eponymous first album (Holy Mountain) with a bonus CD compiling all of the singles' tracks. Besides being a warm gesture to new fans, the comprehensive packaging has the effect of consecrating Wooden Shjips' reputation. It seems certain that this band is now at the helm of San Francisco's ever-burgeoning psych-rock scene. There is also evidence of serious if subtle musical progress being made, from the cryptic garage rock of tracks like "Death's Not Your Friend" to the artfully expansive arrangements of Wooden Shjips' culminating diptych, "Blue Sky Bends" and "Shine like Suns."
In keeping with their scattershot release history, Wooden Shjips have released a new 7-inch on yet another label, Sub Pop. Although many musicians are tailoring their work to iTunes, Johnson's moved in the opposite direction, recognizing that the material nature of his band's releases seals their music's aura, which, redolent of '60s and '70s minimalist garage rock, occupies a very specific, romantic spot in many record collectors' hearts. "It was inspired in part by private-press and limited-press records, like George Brigman's Jungle Rot [self-released, 1975]," Johnson writes from New York, where Wooden Shjips recently played a round of CMJ festival shows. "More in the sense that if you make a record and put a lot of care into it, someone might discover it someday and dig it."
Long cognizant of the fetish for mystery objects, the singer-guitarist even went so far as to give away the first several hundred copies of Shrinking Moon for You. The gamble paid off nicely, judging by the piqued curiosity inspired by early raves the 10-inch drew from tastemakers like the Wire's Byron Coley and Rolling Stone's David Fricke. These reviews ignited the dash among critics to tease out the elements of the Shjips' suggestive sound as so many influences; the Velvet Underground, the Doors, Terry Riley, and Spacemen 3 are most frequently named, though I'd also refer listeners to the burned-rubber daydream of Monte Hellman's classic 1971 road movie Two-Lane Blacktop.
It would be silly to contend that the Shjips don't work from the fierce template pioneered on the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat (Verve, 1967), but their cobalt blue jams hardly tell of an anxiety of influence. What matters with Wooden Shjips is the evident relish they take in reconfiguring the shards of a particular music history and the sense of utter bliss in their fire-and-brimstone sonic landscape.