Album Review: Wooden Shjips – Dos

There’s the real world…and then there’s Wooden Shjips’ world. A land where a few extra “j”s never hurt anybody–in Wooden Shjips’ world, it’s always July, just slightly after sunset, on a Californian beach road. Seventy-five, slight breeze, and the acid is never brown. This is the setting recalled by the San Franciscan quartet’s aptly-titled second record Dos; and it’s a far cry from the last gasps of winter blowing across the Midwest. Call it escapist, sure. But that’s what Wooden Shjips does best–this is a band that was born forty years too late; and unlike droves of other “retro” bands trying to dig up the glory days of rock ‘n roll, Wooden Shjips just doesn’t care. Because Dos doesn’t settle for sounding “classic”–Dos sounds lost, like an obscure, dust-covered 45 languishing in some uncle’s basement. And it’s hard to believe bandleader Ripley Johnson would have it any other way.

Marrying the droning fuzz-pop of the Electric Prunes to the driving rhythms of NEU!, with a penchant for Velvet Underground-style guitar explorations, Wooden Shjips craft the perfect lost psychedelic album with Dos. Drawing from a set of bands that despite not being contemporaneous, all share the unique quality of having posthumous cults that drastically outnumber their original fans, if you found a beat-to-hell copy of Dos at the bottom of a bargain bin with a sticker that said “1969” on it, there’d be no question that it was the missing link between the American psychedelic scene and German Krautrock.

Either a tribute to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”, or a reworking of “The Living End” by the Jesus and Mary Chain, opening track “Motorbike” does nothing to dispel this “missing link” myth. After a chewy guitar intro, the Shjips quickly lock into a mechanical groove, complemented by pulsing organ work that deserves the “Ghost Rider” mention. The few vocals there are only serve to provide a little atmosphere and frame Shjip’s captain Johnson’s cascading walls of fuzzed-out guitar, drenched in reverb, a la the JAMC. Ironically, it’s these later influences that keep Dos‘s psychedelica from going stale. Even though “Motorbike” is unabashedly indebted to 60’s psychedelica, there’s enough well-rounded 70’s and 80’s influences to keep the songs from descending into acid-rock cliches. No drum solos. No backwards tape effects. No peace-love-dove lyrics or tie-dyed shirt. Wooden Shjips doesn’t need these things to authenticate its psychedelic haze. All it takes is a half a tank of gas, a decent car stereo, and forty miles of uninterrupted highway.

But two albums and a handful of singles in, leather-clad psychedelica like “Motorbike” is par for the course. Dos distinguishes itself from the rest of the band’s work because of its increased predilection towards succinct songwriting over free-flowing jams. Compared to earlier epics like “Shine Like Suns”, Dos’s songs are almost radio-friendly. Case in point: “For So Long”. Following up on the final guitar histrionics of “Motorbike”, “For So Long” jumps straight into a fun, funky bassline, and the clearest, most up-in-the-mix vocals of Johnson’s career. As much Swinging London as it is Summer of Love, “For So Long” is a dancey, to-the-point number that finds the band at its most focused–but without compromising the band’s woolly jamming.

Dos, as with the rest of the Shjips’ work, will have its criticisms. As before, they will not be unjustified. “It all sounds the same”, they’ll say–and despite the fact that consistency and flow are this band’s bread and butter, they’re right. Even though it’s a relatively short album at 38 minutes, Dos feels overlong, due mostly to 10-minute-plus jamathons like “Down by the Sea” and the closer, “Fallin”, which admittedly does start off on the right foot as a tight, Roxy Music-style pop song, before eventually descending into the gratuitous organ solos and laid-back guitar licks trading off into eternity.

In spite of the great length and minimal dynamics of these songs, Dos is a surprisingly listenable album. Winding jams are this band’s stock-in-trade, and Dos finds the Shjips in top form, serving up “European Son” impressions to the stoned and square alike–and at its best, Dos finds these jams elegantly set into increasingly well-written pop songs, in the cases of  ”For So Long” and “Fallin”. Although Dos isn’t going to replace anybody’s collection of obscure psychedelic LPs, it’s certainly a worthy addition to such a collection.

Check Out:
For So Long


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