Back To Land, the fourth album from San Francisco-based psychedelic rock quartet Wooden Shjips is, unfortunately, a frustratingly pedestrian affair. Listening back to their 2007 Holy Mountain debut and Dos, you can hear that the band’s formula hasn’t changed much over the years, but where the band’s once-cool Doors-ian foundation would allow guitarist Ripley Johnson to indulge in angular, textured solos, giving a distinctly retrospective sound a modern twist, the band now seem content to regurgitate watered-down, monotonous jams.
Ninety percent of the music on Back To Land can be characterised thusly; the drums and bass lock into a steady rhythm which never falters or varies, the keyboard player essentially plays three notes at best, and Johnson mumbles something he was obviously not too bothered about sharing with the world, and then smothers his voice with an echo effect so the words become unintelligible anyway. Then he does a bit of a guitar solo, and then the whole cycle repeats. Generally the songs revolve around two root notes; sometimes they’ll shift a key, or break out a cheeky three-chord progression (“These Shadows”), but on the whole this is the way almost all of these eight songs play out.
But it’s not the simplicity or minimalism that mars this album – some of the greatest bands have done some of their greatest work whilst locking into almighty repetitive grooves, or by mashing out the same chord for 20 minutes. However, these bands did this with a sense of energy, enthusiasm and passion – something which seems to be entirely missing here, or at the very least, lost in translation. This is psychedelia by numbers – metronomic, predictable, and largely vapid. One of the few moments of respite comes in the form of closing track “Everyone Knows” which at least attempts to strike an emotional chord with an emotive melody and an almost wistful sense of longing. Likewise, some of the more uptempo songs sound like Scooby Doo getaway music which, depending on your predilection for late sixties, early seventies children’s cartoons, could be a good or bad thing.
Granted, this is an album you can easily allow yourself to get lost in; as background music you’re unlikely to notice much about it, positive or negative, besides the fact that large portions of it sound the same. You might even enjoy it in this capacity or find it pleasing. But that’s hardly a ringing endorsement. As a live band, Wooden Shjips create a fantastic, cavernous sound full of fuzz and drone, awash with colour, and at the end of the day Back To Land just seems like an excuse to return to the live circuit with some new wares to sell.
Wooden Shjips are great at what they do, and Back To Land isn’t necessarily a bad album, but it’s certainly guilty of being uninspired, and even lifeless at times. No-one, except perhaps Johnson, seems to be stretching themselves to any real degree, and even his solos are more often than not of the meandering, bluesy, and ultimately dull kind. Perhaps the wilfully retrospective charm of Wooden Shjips’ early output is just wearing a bit thin now. Rather than going Back To Land, perhaps it’s time for Wooden Shjips to go back to the drawing board?
Scribed by: Tom McKibbin