Never in my life would I have thought I’d be giving the time of day to anything described as being “psychedelic” and from “San Fransisco”. San Fransisco punk and hardcore have been staples of my musical diet for years but I abandoned the hippie-dippy, make-the-world-safe-for-freaks, 1960’s SF stuff long ago. Partly, I think, this is because I’m generally pretty disgusted with baby-boomer culture and its self-absorption. If you were alive in the 1980’s and were witness to the unending news stories about baby-boomers, who were into their thirties by then, and their “what does it all mean” identity crises you might have an idea of what I’m talking about. But, beyond this, the most popular bands from San Fransisco at the end of the 1960’s just seemed so ridiculously safe. We can debate the relative musical merits of The Grateful Dead (or even the vomit-inducing Jefferson Airplane) all day long but the fact remains that nobody would ever mistake them for bad-ass, Rock-N-Roll bands.
Which is why Wooden Shjips is such a treat and mystery.
With a new 5-track album out on the very cool Holy Mountain label Wooden Shjips continues on the path first articulated via a 10″ and a 7″ (both included on the album). And that path is one of utterly menacing, expansive Rock-N-Roll. From the pure Doors-conjuring “We Ask You To Ride” to the keyboard minimalist freak of “Death’s Not Your Friend” (from the 10″) to the garage throb-n-roll of “Dance California” (from the 7″) Wooden Shjips has got it. That is to say, they don’t sound safe at all. Key to Wooden Shjips success musically is that there is no hint of the touristy, 1968 and beyond San Fransisco here but there is a good amount of the truly exciting, experimental sounds from 1965-1967. And for all the bands explorations into fuzz-heavy, long song structures they still sound very lean. Like they would cut you as soon as speak to you but, hold on, let them finish this song first and then we’ll fight outside. Like they made a soundtrack for an armory that doubles as an opium den. Like somewhere inside their heads a little voice is saying, “This is my happening and it freaks me out!”(Repect to Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell.)
MP3: Wooden Shjips-We Ask You To Ride
MP3: Wooden Shjips-Lucy’s Ride
On the other side of world (musically speaking, that is; geographically speaking merely half-way across the United States) is Milwaukee’s Maritime. The band just released its third LP, Heresy And The Hotel Choir, earlier this month via Flameshovel Records and there’s a reason I’m placing this mention of it right next to the Wooden Shjips mention above (other than the fact that I like the juxtaposition of “Shjips” and “Maritime”). And that’s because for as potentially violent as Wooden Shjips music is Maritime is is the opposite. But the fatal mistake here would be to assume that because something is not potentially physically violent it is safe.
OK, admittedly the reason I ever originally gave Maritime my attention was because I’m still an unabashed fan of The Promise Ring (laugh all you want, rockists; I don’t care). Maritime includes as members both Davey von Bohlen and Dan Didier so, yeah, there’s that. Musically, Maritime is incredibly solid guitar-based indie pop in the best traditions of the genre. Well constructed, emotional instrumentation (whereby the playing is, in and of itself, emotionally evidential;that is to say, soulful) and von Bohlen’s distinctive, almost-adult-sounding voice make the whole album a joy to listen to. But, the joy is tempered by the lyrical weight of the album which refers back to my original point: although seemingly easily digestible, Maritime doesn’t cause one to fear for their skin so much as worry about one’s soul. I don’t necessarily mean “soul” in the sense of that which is rescued from an eternal death by a supreme being (although, I could mean that) but I definitely mean it in the sense of that self-constructed identity that makes up the core of one’s being. That sum total of one’s beliefs and actions that make one who he is. (And it’s not entirely fair to say that Maritime causes this worry but for anyone open to, or possessing a weakness for, self-analysis that isn’t mere navel gazing Maritime can definitely trigger such feelings. They did in me.)
Heresy And The Hotel Choir hits the point early on in the track “For Science Fiction” which says, “I wanna thank God/for the science fiction/for the benediction and the contradiction/that all our souls are saved.” But as the song ends Von Bohlen relinquishes the rest of the chorus and repeats, with ever increasing distress, “I wanna thank God, I wanna thank God!”. It’s as close to a secular prayer as you’re likely to find.
Whereas Wooden Shjips trades in the visceral and the flesh bound Maritime deals with man’s core, the state of which, it can be argued, ultimately dictates the joy available to the former.