Bobby Matador (Oneida) Talks Wooden Shjips’ Back to Land

A bunch of years ago, I borrowed an organ from Wooden Shjips when we played together in San Francisco. They couldn’t have been cooler about it...

A bunch of years ago, I borrowed an organ from Wooden Shjips when we played together in San Francisco. They couldn’t have been cooler about it — we were on tour on the west coast, relying on the kindness of strangers for some of the gear we couldn’t fly out with — and when I fucked up the organ, since I tend to kind of pound on things, they were awesome and understanding. I didn’t mean to be a dick, and I think they recognized that I was just playing the damn thing, but still it’s a big deal to let someone use your instrument, and I will always be grateful to those guys for that. Also, of course, they’ve made some amazing music: at their best, Wooden Shjips put together a smoggy, smeared minimalism that hits a unique and knotty balance between laid-back west coast psych and a kind of brooding, private aggression.

Thing is, minimalism is at its best when it’s hyper-stern, or painted with an idiosyncratic palette, or when it forces a confrontation between artist and listener. The promo material supplied by the label for this record, Back to Land, offers Suicide and the Velvet Underground as minimalist signifiers; but those bands created instant tension between creator and consumer with nearly every recording — and as they progressed, they constantly shifted their demands like the unreasonable boyfriends they probably were. This record, though, drifts more than it pushes; something’s missing.

And at the other end of a duality set up in the press release lies “freeness,” [sic] invoked via the names of Les Rallizes Dénudés and Crazy Horse. These are bands that color way, way outside the lines of propriety, despite an aesthetic language that starts with shared rock traditions. On Back to Land, though, the guitars sound under control, the songs change chords, the mix sounds professional — and yeah, these are aesthetic choices that don’t in themselves carry an objective valuation… but while I’m getting old and walking a thornier path than I ever expected, these guys seem to be laying back and lightening up more and more. Nobody’s fault, but there’s a growing distance between us: it’s not an unbridgeable gulf, and I can roll with some gentle tides from time to time, but I’m finding myself frustrated by this record’s breezy way with rock tropes. Older material like “Blue Sky Bends” or “Shine Like Suns” crammed rigor and mess together with no room to spare, no space to breathe, and I loved that claustrophobia and tension, where the wild shimmering guitars promised “freeness” that was always circumscribed by the brutal limitations of form. The only track here where I get any of that clenched, tooth-grinding euphoria is the second tune, “Ruins” — which is a relentlessly-swung throb that buzzes and dives in triplet time, a totally un-kraut California anxiety dream. That one’s making the playlist for sure, and I’ll be seeing them when they come to town — I know they’re gonna dust the room and take care of business. I’ll try not to break anything of theirs, either.

Robertson Thacher, also known as Bobby Matador, is a member of the musical organization and performance ensemble Oneida, founded in 1997. In addition to making unseemly noise, he teaches literature, writing, and art at a Boston-area middle school.