Listen to a couple tracks by Wooden Shjips and it’s pretty easy to guess that they call San Francisco home. From their set-opener--"Black Smoke Rise," the hypnotic first track off this year’s West (released on Chicago’s Thrill Jockey) throughout the entire set at the Empty Bottle Saturday, the most appropriate adjective to describe their sound would be “psychedelic.” Now, yes, I understand that is a vague and inexplicit term. But for all of the connotations and associations that word brings up in your mind, Wooden Shjips hits them all. The drums and bass repeat relentlessly, the six strings scream and the electric organ drones.
Most songs follow a similar structure and are so fuzzed out that it can be difficult to tell where one ends and another begins (save for birds tweeting in-between songs). Really, tempo changes were the only way to differentiate, the improperly titled "Lazy Bones" one of the more upbeat and energetic of their catalogue, played early in the set. At one point, Ripley Johnson grinded the neck of his guitar against the mic stand. The action looked so unconscious that it was difficult to tell if on purpose or not. It was sort of odd how he also took the anti-frontman role, the only member constantly in the shadows, despite a projector aiming visual nonsense at the band. It added to the effect though, his baritone and already obscure vocals almost seeming to come out of nowhere.
Wooden Shjips make music I would generally think of as "background." But live, they command attention. If not for volume then because of the shear absurdity of repetition used. Yeah, the keyboardist looks bored, but the other three make up for it, even with minimal chord changes or progressions, sometimes opting for even only one or two chords to center an entire song around. In the end, it’s the subtleties that make the difference. You think you’ve been listening to the same thing for a while, before you realize you didn’t even notice the drummer add in a ride cymbal, or when the soloing switched from the keys to guitar. As West so implies, the theme of the album is about movement, finding new territory and exploring the unknown. Wooden Shjips aren’t exactly achieving that, but they do take the best of their influences (Velvet Underground, Spacemen 3, the Doors, even) and scramble them into one noisy omelet.