Portland quartet Wooden Shjips encompass a West Coast sound more than perhaps any other band around at the moment. There’s something lazy and sun-drenched in the way Ripley Johnson’s guitar parts drift and meander over organ chords, there’s more than a hint of desert rock – or even San Francisco smog – in the stoned melodies and muted weight of their songs, and their unapologetically repetitive rhythm section parts well represent long drives on the great American open road.
The title of their fifth album is on one level entirely prosaic, but the way its cover art presents that Roman numeral in the form of a monolithic peace sign is also a clear nod towards the hippie movement, and of course the California psychedelic rock that was such a big part of it. Wooden Shjips aren’t coy about their antecedents, although they don’t stop at flower power: Johnson has cited Neil Young, The Stooges and The Velvet Underground as key influences.
But the hippie vibe is in bloom here: V is intended as summer album. This isn’t the first time Johnson has made records with moods and seasons in mind: his other band Moon Duo released two volumes of Occult Architecture albums last year, the first dark and wintry, the second milder and more summery. But V is laced more richly with sunshine: it’s the mellowest and brightest album Wooden Shjips have released to date.
It’s not all cruising along the Pacific Coast or lying on beaches, however. Standout track Staring At The Sun was written in Portland in the literal shadow of last summer’s huge forest fires and is about a fiercer kind of summer heat. “Ashes falling round the town,” Johnson sings early on, setting the mood as truly apocalyptic. The track’s first few chords are reminiscent of Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side, but as it develops it gradually grows looser and more intense – it follows the pattern of the wildfires it describes. But it also seems to be about something greater than earthly fires: the space rock sound and the opening lines “I was sitting alone, staring at the sun” seem to suggest that it’s about man’s place in the cosmos.
Another highlight is opening track Eclipse. It begins with all of the key components of a typical Wooden Shjips song: pounding drums, insistent bass, fuzzy guitars, occluded vocals. But a couple of minutes in, a horn section starts to cut through the wall of sound. By the time we’re two thirds of the way through the track the horns have taken the lead and there’s almost a sense that they’re improvising over the band’s steady groundwork. The unchanging drums and bass root the sound in the band’s back catalogue, but this is Wooden Shjips at their most melodic and spacey.
The beauty of Wooden Shjips’ music is that it can just as easily fill or empty your head. Empty spaces are few and far between in their work; a sonographic representation of any of their songs would almost certainly be a near-solid hacksaw blade. But it also seems made for zoning out to: it’s not exactly background music, but it has a semi-ambient feel, a stoned and sleepy mood. V is just a little sharper than Wooden Shjips have sounded before, but there’s still something stopping the sun’s rays from hitting the ground as hard as they might. There’s smoke in the air here: it might be from wildfires, or it might just be from a joint.