I'm nostalgic for the late '90s, when it was primarily the British press that loved — no, hated — well, loved the Best Band Ever This Week™. You'd pick up a copy of NME and roll your eyes at its latest Pretty Young Thing (while secretly wondering when you could get the LP domestically), knowing that acts with U.K. praise this mighty always take the hardest falls.
Manic hyperbole is now an international language. Blogs are the juicy tastemakers you love to hate (and then read religiously), as much as their authors love to boost (and then bash) the bands they cover. We're in an accelerated era of criticism, in which the thrill of discovery is tarnished proportional to the number of times you've gotta hear about a band/defend its music/dig out from under its fan avalanche.
But occasionally you detect excitement for a new artist that sounds grounded, genuine, lasting. The slow build on locals Wooden Shjips is happening outside the industry's warp-speed crushes and breakups. Frontman Ripley Johnson has spent a couple years solidifying the right lineup, which finally came together in 2006. The group released its music only on vinyl, available in limited quantities for free to anyone who asked. The act never played live. And yet it still showed up on numerous music-geek radars.
I first heard about Wooden Shjips last year the old-fashioned way — via word of mouth (from a pal in Los Angeles with a penchant for heavy psych merchants) and a short print pick (by Rolling Stone's David Fricke) — coupled with obligatory MySpace listens (if you've yet to hear the group, let “Clouds Over Earthquake” get molten on your noggin). But I hadn't heard the Shjips' metallic jams live before their first show at Cafe Du Nord last week.
The crowd that Monday night felt earnestly enthusiastic — no noxious suits ready to pounce or Web snobs ready to whack down the buzz band. But make no mistake, the showroom was packed. It held the unassuming side of the S.F. “industry”: Amoeba clerks, local bands, and club bookers, alongside your regular curious music fans. Before the Wooden Shjips played, the band members' banter was equally casual: Johnson checked to make sure the mike had enough reverb, and grinned at the crowd before announcing, “We brought a bunch of earplugs for you guys. You're gonna need them.”
Sound advice, as Johnson, backed by his old Botulism bandmate, drummer Omar Ahsanuddin, along with bassist Dusty Jermier and organist Nash Whalen, turned out a voluminous set that lasted, what, 45 minutes? An hour and a half? Three songs? Seven songs? The repetitive, serpentine grooves and elephantine distortion muddied time. Johnson hit numerous guitar delay pedals and contributed woozy, echoing vocals, while Whalen's organ riffs punctuated the drone with melody. The songs' concrete-colored tones and dirgy textures stretched across a rocky, proto-metal landscape. Transfixing stuff, these Wooden Shjips.
When the spell broke at the end of the night, a friend remarked, “I can't believe those guys have been around for so long and that was their first show.” In this quick pace of band-forms-band-plays-clubs-band-gets-huge-band-gets-hated, Wooden Shjips' patient procession is a lifetime. I e-mailed with Johnson last week about the Du Nord gig, and he wrote that the group hadn't hit the stage before “because it took some time to get everyone on the same page. There was no hurry. We were supposed to play a Six Organs show last August, but someone had gone camping. Same thing happened for some shows in the fall.”
As with the meditative pacing of Wooden Shjips' music, much thought goes into its performances, its recordings (Holy Mountain will issue the band's debut LP this year), and, apparently, its camping trips. But the pace picks up in March, when Wooden Shjips open for Roky Erickson at Noise Pop, perform a SXSW showcase, and play with Residual Echoes at the Hemlock. “Finally, we've gotten it together enough to plan ahead a bit,” Johnson adds. “Hopefully we can keep it that way for a while.”