The Drones Ring True
When guitarist and vocalist Eric “Ripley” Johnson created his motorik, psychedelic darling about a decade ago, he formed it around a simple but intriguing philosophy. With a fascination with repetition akin to that of the late Lou Reed, his aim was to create mantras that paid homage to the music from the ‘60s and ‘70s that inspired him. Understanding simplicity was more valued than necessarily playing well and Johnson went so far as to seek musicians lacking technical proficiency to reach this desired mark. But now that Wooden Shjips is Back to Land with their fourth proper LP, it’s hard to tell that these musicians could have once been considered sub-par. And if one thing the album proves certain, it’s that the drones still ring true.
This most recent effort continues in the trend of 2011’s West by recording in proper studios. It’s not too surprising that this is Wooden Shjips’ most polished and decidedly least lo-fi record, but this never dampers the aesthetic. Subtle refinements come by way of new features like the acoustic guitar, but Johnson’s lyrics are as indiscernible as ever and Wooden Shjips continue to prioritize feeling over meaning. The difference is in the details, like how Nash Whalen’s organ sounds more polished on some of the album’s thumpers like “In the Roses” and “Ruins.”
If there’s one facet of Back to Land that sets it apart from the band’s previous material, it’s a factor of brightness. A handful of songs, like the misleadingly titled “These Shadows,” memorably glisten. Album closer “Everybody Knows” is the sweetest of the batch and is also arguably the strongest track because it shows the band taking strides toward the sunlight. This brightening of sound might be explained by the fact that band members have recently moved from San Francisco to Oregon, but it’s a welcome development regardless of the catalyst.
Wooden Shjips have a way of creating atmospheres that bleed in to each other and this lends well to Back to Land‘s vibe and continuity, but it’s also a weakness in that it restricts their potential diversity. This is an album that sounds better as a soundtrack to a long drive—or accompaniment to a daydream—than it sounds when it’s under the microscope.