REVIEW: Wooden Shjips - Dos
Zach Hart Monday, April 20, 2009
Wooden Shjips has a lot going for them. A cool name (CSN&Y inspired?), mysterious band photos, Pitchfork-induced hype. Why, then, is it so hard for me to get into them? My history with the band starts with their earliest piece, the self-released “Shrinking Moon” 10” record let loose in 2006. The disc came in an undecorated white paper sleeve, inside of a clear poly bag. The only indication of what this music was was a teeny 1x1/2” sticker on the poly bag and a picture of a smiling moon on the center label of one side of the record. Its brevity left much wonderment to brew inside my head. I had to buy it, get it home and listen to it as soon as cosmically possible. I got home to my record player and threw the slab of wax down hoping to be blown away. I listened to it many times, but was confused and let down. Each spin left me trying to convince myself that I just wasn’t in the mood that day. That it was me and not the record. That tomorrow would bring a better listen and a greater understanding. A few more spins on days thereafter and we just never clicked. I felt let down. I felt I was promised something that was not delivered.
Fast-forward to “Dos.” I came at it optimistically. Well, maybe they’ve improved, I thought. It’s been a long time since that 10” and they’ve had quite a bit of time to grow as a band. Plus that 10” was more of a statement, a piece in restraint, made to test your preconceptions of “music.” Anti-music, with their psychy twist. “Dos” is a full-length album, where they’ll be able to explore themselves… It wasn’t so. Despite the “We Demand to be Taken Seriously” high contrast cover photo and wicked looking title font, the music, frankly, comes off as utterly repetitive and boring with no truly redeeming quality. On each song, bass and drums play the exact same lines over and over and over and over, while the guitar noodles around some mediocre guitar solos set way back in the mix. Perhaps I’m no high-class psych connoisseur, but I am a fan of the genre and I’m sure that if I typed in “psych” under Google’s Blog search, I could come up with a Rapidshare link to something better than this in the first few hits. It seems to me that the key to psych music is not playing in such a tight, rigid style (with the bass and drums), but to branch out and be looser with the music. On every track, the bass plays a meager two or three different notes and the drummer rarely hits more than two drums (bass, snare, bass, snare, bass…). Every song ends up sounding very much the same. There are no “stand out” tracks. There are no lyrics or melodies that will stick with you, as the vocals are so drowned in reverb and other muddying effects they are nearly inaudible, becoming lost in the mix.
Two of the album’s five songs clock in at over 10 minutes. And its not a 10 minutes after which you’ll wonder where the time went. It’s 10 minutes of the same droning guitar, two bass notes and drumbeat. This begs the question though, if that is what your music is about, why stop at 10 minutes? CDs are 80 minutes these days, drag that sucker out for half an hour a la “Sister Ray.” That would get the point across. All in all, there seems to be an inherent flaw with the band’s sound. Despite their Woodstock-era name, Wooden Shjips seem to be influenced by ‘80s and ‘90s psychedelia, like Spacemen 3 and My Bloody Valentine. When compared to those influences, or to contemporary bands seeking the same “drenched in psych” sound (Comets on Fire comes to mind), you can see how Wooden Shjips pale in comparison. The caliber of songwriting, the vocal presentation and delivery, the aptitude of the musicians at their instruments. They all lack. All of these elements together just don’t add up into an enjoyable work. Too many crucial aspects of quality music are absent.
Well then, what is redeemable here? They are able to really get into a groove. How long you want to listen to that groove is another question, but the groove does exists. They found it. Also, the line-up of instruments is nice. Guitar, bass, drums, organ. I can dig it. The organ is a nice touch in this stripped down band. “Fallin’” presents the instrument nicely. Surprise surprise, though; it too stays within the constrains of only few notes throughout the album. (On a side note, on “Aquarian Time” the keyboard can’t help but remind me of Dare-era Human League, which is somewhat out of place.)
If I was pressed to pick one song to play someone off the album (a “single”), “For So Long” is really the only stand out piece. The bass plays a decently complicated but structural line, the vocals are at their most substantial and memorable, and the guitar plays nice ethereal bits throughout. It seems, though, that “Dos” is really a record to be experienced as a whole. It’s not a collection of songs; it’s an entire experience. Just put the record on, sit in a comfy chair and zone out for its 38 minutes (hallucinogenic drugs optional). It’s nice for that specific purpose, but becomes tedious after a few spins. All in all, it sounds like music that was more fun to play and record than it is to listen to after the fact.