A SPECTRE is always haunting the Silversun Pickups. No matter what sound might pour from their microphones or amps, frontman Brian Aubert and the rest of the atmospheric L.A. rockers will inevitably hear someone, somewhere, loudly whispering to everyone in the immediate vicinity: “These guys sound just like The Smashing Pumpkins.”
Shudders start now. Invoking the image of the bald one and company may feel like a curse, but if you can get past the obvious influences of the omnipresent Corgan, and whatever bogeyman-like terror may haunt your memory of the troubled one, there’s an infectious catchiness to the music coming from the hard-rocking Silversun Pickups that’s something more than a nostalgic throwback to an overdubbed, distortion-filled time.
It’s easy to write the sound off as a generic post-90’s product, but there’s a sly seductiveness to the way the Pickups craft pulsating pop songs about polite little lovers and twinkling lazy eyes, driving it all with vicious, swirling guitars and throbbing bass. For all the hype and hate, 2006’s Carnavas was a mixed-bag album blending a handful of stellar sonic offerings with more than a few ramble-prone entries. With a second studio release, Swoon, the Pickups expand and layer Carnavas’s musical canvas, but still struggle to present a coherent vision.
Aubert and company’s vision, summed up in the album’s title, centers around the idea of an overwhelming physical and emotional breakdown. “There’s No Secrets This Year,” builds a gripping start that finds drummer Christopher Guanlao rapping out a terse undertone for the inevitable biting guitar layers and swells created by Aubert and bassist Nikki Monninger. The wall finally breaks into a gentle string-filled lull, soundtracked by Aubert whispering, “better make sure you’re looking closely, before you fall into your Swoon.” Strings and synth provide a firm basis for the new sound on “The Royal We,” a sort of call-and-response between the synth and the electric guitar that finally climaxes in a dipping, swirling crescendo.
Alongside the emphasis upon orchestral embellishment, the band allows Monninger’s vocals to balance and play off of Aubert’s already androgynous-leaning tones. That combination casts a haunting atmosphere over the album, and is only amplified by the choice to move away from the simple production formula of distort, layer, and repeat.
A flash of inspiration—or just fears of Corgan comparisons—apparently led the Pickups to the obvious choice to suppress Aubert usual urge to scream. In the few short years since his shifty-eyed live delivery and Monninger’s wonderfully short skirts became part of our cultural framework, you knew you could always expect the screams. It was a simple and surprisingly effective artistic formula; build a straight-forward, mid-tempo, distortion-dripping beginning and then let the tempo slowly rise until finally climaxing with some vicious screams. Whether screaming about “seasons always shifting too late,” (“Kissing Families”) or the sunshine (“Lazy Eye”), Aubert’s fury punctured the sometimes-repetitive wall of sound and added an entirely satisfying emotional release to the live performance.
The scream option is hiding beneath the shiny veneer a few times on Swoon, peeking out on “Substitution,” but on the whole Aubert’s voice is restrained from some of its previous visceral heights. That’s mostly good, but with no song clocking in under 4:30 minutes and Aubert’s tendency to rely on vague lyrical abstractions, the obesity that plagues the second half of the album could have been punctured with a little less shimmer and a little more growl. “Panic Switch,” avoids the pitfalls of a meander-prone album, layering Monninger’s repetitious bassline with sweeping guitars, dreamy vocals and frenetic drums that breaks into a hard, glittering chorus, and an inspired finale.
“Panic Switch” is, unfortunately, one of the last memorable tracks on an enjoyable but largely forgettable album. There’s a swaggering viciousness to the Silversun Pickups’ fiery live performances that never disappoints, but by the end of Swoon, their recorded essence feels neutered. The second half of the album rolls by with a wave of toothless sonic swirls that buries far too many kicks and hooks. The idea is to disorient, to take the listener into a type of sound-stretching experience, but when Aubert finally closes the album on “Surrounded (or Spiraling),” he asks, “Can we get behind distortion?” Maybe he should worry about getting out from behind it.
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