A plain white sleeve. A black and white photo. A silver-tinted headshot collage. These have been the ways in which San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips has presented itself as a band on past releases. The saturated blue water, green landmasses and striking red bridge that grace the cover of the band’s third full-length, West, is presumably meant to signify a step forward. There’s no denying that West is the Shjips’ brightest and most well-produced effort to date, with a front-forward mix of overdriven guitars, crisp drumming and pummeling bass, as well as the occasional wandering vocal. It’s quality assembly-line psychedelic rock, and if you hadn’t heard the Shjips’ before, it has the potential to be revelatory. Each of the seven tracks here has a standout moment amidst the propulsive song physics, designed from the get-go to keep a uniform, unimpeachable groove.
Presentation isn’t the problem with West, though. It’s that Wooden Shjips has been playing a mild variation of the same song, over and over and over again, since the band’s debut EP five years ago. Really, the only differences I’d have in describing the music on West over my earlier assessment of their last full-length, Dos, would be entirely surface related. The members, apart from Ripley Johnson (who also pilots side project Moon Duo), seem content to keep rubber-stamping their way through what’s become a slightly lucrative musical career. Tours sponsored by Sailor Jerry rum and plum slots on all kinds of European rock festivals are Wooden Shjips’ reward for reliability.
But the miserable truth cannot be ignored. These fellas do nothing to prove their worth — no innovation, no spirit, an almost fearful clinging to this root sound in order to amass a few more dozen people at each show. They live in the background. They are the band that makes it safe for showgoers to talk loudly over, and provide a soundtrack for those looking for the vague fulfillments that come with attending a rock show for reasons apart from the music.
West isn’t entirely review-proof, but there’s not much reason to look any further for relevance. Wooden Shjips remains the “cruise control” rock band to beat, the Jarvik-7 thump of consistency that passively rails against the few bands that actually do try to push things along further. With the number of releases under their belts easing into the double digits, it’s getting harder not to dislike their sheer laziness of approach. A refinement in production and headspace notwithstanding, there is scant quantitative evidence that you’d need more than one of their records in your life. And while you could argue that there are plenty of bands that do the same thing from record to record, none is more obvious in its lack of passion. What was once an exciting examination of a seldom-explored corner of rock and roll has become a listless, mechanical affair. We don’t need any more of this.