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Album Review: Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods [Dangerbird]



The alternative rock genre is in a painful state these days. Radio stations around the globe that play the genre are dying or already dead, even as bands like Linkin Park and AFI press onwards like there’s nothing wrong. So long as they’re still doing well and playing to huge crowds, they don’t see any problem. That, or they’re aching to grab whatever semblance of popularity they have left. When persons of a certain age get tired of the angst-ridden, guitar-heavy rock, there’s always another generation of pubescent teenagers to take their place. Your teens are a very emotional time, and sometimes you need that angry, scream-riddled music to connect and help you through. And some people never get past that phase. Not to generalize, but the construction worker population of America seems to really like rock music, possibly because it’s the only thing that can cut above the noise of power drills and buzzsaws. Others still prefer it to hear songs from the genre’s heyday, as 90’s songs from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Bush, Deftones and Korn all continue to get the bulk of airplay on the remaining radio stations committed to the format. The good news is that not all is lost, and a number of more independently-minded rock bands have been working hard to keep people listening. The rise of The Black Keys, Cage the Elephant and Silversun Pickups have all breathed new life into old sounds, while Mumford & Sons, Foster the People and Death Cab for Cutie have created more sonic diversity. While these groups may be sharply lacking in truly experimental sounds, they’re proving that like some mainstream pop artists, you don’t need to sacrifice tried and true elements to make good music.

Silversun Pickups have had a remarkably easy time reaching mainstream popularity. Their 2005 EP Pikul was quickly adopted by a number of music blogs and independently-minded radio stations, where comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins were evident from the get-go. Brian Aubert’s singing voice is strikingly androgynous, though it has a nasal quality reminiscent of Billy Corgan. The swirling, heavy guitars and power chords bring to mind mid-90’s records like Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The band has confessed that the Pumpkins are an inspiration, though their second full-length record Swoon attempted to break free from that familiar mold just a little bit. Mostly that meant incorporating a more pristine production structure complete with a string section, and extending the lengths of most of their songs to somewhere near the five minute mark. What it lacked was real conviction, and genuine movement or shifts in tempo to justify the song lengths. The band was smart in choosing singles for that record though, as both “Panic Switch” and “Substitution” were probably the best two tracks on the entire record.

For their new one Neck of the Woods, Silversun Pickups pretty much pick up exactly where they left off. Clocking in at almost 60 minutes, over half of the album’s 11 tracks make it to at least five minutes and two more cross the six minute mark. They can’t get a single idea across in under 4.5 minutes. If your material is good and interesting enough to sustain those sorts of lengths though, it’s not a problem. For this record they brought famed producer Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M., Bloc Party) on board, and it appears he holds the key to making Silversun Pickups a better band. A very cursory and inattentive listen to the album might not reveal its unique charms or make the changes from the band’s first two long players evident. Indeed, they still pummel you with a wall of sound, and Aubert’s voice isn’t about to lose its Billy Corgan-ness. However the closer you examine these songs the more you notice the creative and interesting choices made when putting them together. The band has tried out plenty of shoegaze sounds before, but they’ve never come so close to the excellence of My Bloody Valentine as they do on first single “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)”. Opening number “Skin Graph” has a very familiar flair to it as well, yet does an excellent job managing tempo changes, electronic experimentation, and a memorable hook. Even a very cut-and-dry track like “Mean Spirited” fares better than you might expect because it foregoes a hard-edged and clinical approach in favor of something warmer and more organic. Credit to Lee for softening the production and taking off the excess of polish that was all over Swoon. The band sounds much better when they’re bathed in a choppy fog.

Aubert’s vocals gain a different perspective on Neck of the Woods as well. The past couple Silversun Pickups records he was always at the very top of the mix and leading the way without hesitation. On this album his voice slides where it’s needed and gives other instruments center stage at times. He’s also apparently taken some notes to heart and succeded in taking a bit of the androgyny out of his vocals. The deeper register suits him better than you’d think. So too does incorporation of synths in the band’s overall sound. Listening to “The Pit”, it becomes easy to recognize that for their next record they might explore the possibility of using later period New Order as a source of inspiration. The balladry of “Here We Are (Chancer)” is impressive as well, taking electric guitars somewhat out of the equation in favor of skittering electronic beats, piano and even a touch of piano. All these sonic adjustments across the record don’t amount to a world of difference when all is said and done, but they are very important in how they push Silversun Pickups beyond the flaccid label of being an alternative rock band forever indebted to the Smashing Pumpkins. On Neck of the Woods they’re finally starting to truly separate themselves from the formless pack and earn their place among the remaining and true devotees to the genre. They’re not yet ready to save mainstream rock, but for once they appear to be moving in the right direction.

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Album Review: Neon Indian – Era Extra├▒a [Mom & Pop/Static Tongues]


Of the many chillwave/glo-fi acts to emerge out of that hype cycle a couple years ago, Neon Indian was easily one of the most unique. Sure, the Alan Palomo-fronted project had that distinctive 80s washed out bedroom electronica feel to it, but there haven’t been a lot of artists that incorporate 8-bit video game noises and distorted guitar lines. Throw Palomo’s overly soft-on-the-ears vocals in as well, and Neon Indian’s debut “Psychic Chasms” turned him into a proverbial indie star. Last year he did a one-off single for Green Label Sound called “Sleep Paralysist”, and a couple months back he recorded a psychedelic freak-out EP with The Flaming Lips. Both of those things marked shifts in direction for Palomo and Neon Indian, yet none of those things quite encapsulate what is going on with his second long player, “Era Extra├▒a”. Then again, if you’ve been paying attention to how things are going with other chillwave artists these days, you’re surely aware that like any hype cycle, it’s lifespan is running short. Changes are all but required to survive, and it’s fascinating to hear how the artists within the genre are reacting individually. If you’re Palomo, you go to Finland by yourself and see what sorts of batshit ideas fly out of your head. Rather than putting him in a straightjacket though, “Era Extra├▒a” actually winds up bringing a greater focus to his unique sound.

As it has played out with a number of other chillwave artists, “Era Extra├▒a” boasts a marked step forwards in production style. “Psychic Chasms” was crafted and recorded primarily in Alan Palomo’s bedroom, and you could pretty much tell that from the way it sounded. Now utilizing an actual studio and with actual producer Dave Fridmann, the new album sounds cleaner and bigger than ever before. There are still a handful of woozy, fully retro-fied moments, in particular the 3 instrumental “Heart” interludes, but while the era remains firmly entrenched in the 80s, we’re now dealing in technicolor rather than something paler and more faded. If this were the last record, a track like “Hex Girlfriend” might otherwise have vocals buried in the mix and filled with so much lo-fi reverb that the lyrics border on indecipherable. Now better produced and devoid of any vocal effects, the vocals come across as clear and dominant, a positive when placed among shoegazey guitars and woozy synths. In almost direct opposition to that, the album’s title track features highly polished synths and strongly driven bass, a combo that feels markedly M83/New Order-ish, but then the vocals wind up lowest on the totem pole and oozing with so much reverb that they’re nearly pointless. A huge positive is that the song is paired next to “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)”, a track that is a spiritual and sonic cousin but does a far more interesting job blending textures and pulling off the M83 style. In fact, the sequencing on the entirety of “Era Extra├▒a” is rather inspired, as the grungy, guitar-heavy shoegaze numbers “The Blindside Kiss” and “Hex Girlfriend” wind up neighbors, while there’s an almost LCD Soundsystem-like quality to “Future Sick” and “Suns Irrupt” even if neither track ever quite gets to that level of brilliance. Palomo even has “Arcade Blues” tacked onto the very end of the record with the word “single” in parentheses because he wanted to include it as a bonus track even though it didn’t fit in stylistically with the rest of the record. He’s right about that, and it makes for a great little addendum to everything that came before it.

Palomo also shows off his expanding skills as a composer, building more creatively stimulating and intricate melodies than ever before and utilizing an army of sound effects to accent increasingly complex choruses. First single “Polish Girl” experiments a little with verse structure, namely by placing a bit of instrumental space between the chorus and verses that serves as its own hook. It’s not noticeable unless you’re really looking for it though, which is one of the reasons why the song works so well. In other spots, it’s little moments that make you sit up and take notice. The static-filled, bubbling synth open to “Hex Girlfriend” and the twinkling synths that bring the title track to its conclusion are just two of the more soberingly beautiful bits that bring an extra dose of charm to songs that are far more expansive and party-oriented than most of Neon Indian’s earlier stuff. Yet it never wanders from the singular path it appears to be on, streamlined and to the point more than ever before. And while some of the textures and approaches to most of the songs have changed on “Era Extra├▒a”, the lyrical topics stay within the ballpark. Yes, there’s the inevitable topic du jour of relationships, primarily failed ones, that Palomo gets down about from time to time. That comprises much of the first half of the album, while the second half is more about distancing yourself from the world at large primarily through disconnection. “Future Sick” is all about falling behind the times technologically, while “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)” is about the need to carve your own path in life or risk being left in the dark. The melodies themselves may be uplifting and danceable, but by no means do all of them project positive messages.

If there’s one thing “Era Extra├▒a” lacks, it’s a more lighthearted approach. It’s a big part of why “Arcade Blues” doesn’t fit within the solid structure of the rest of the record. Not that “Arcade Blues” is a single overjoyed moment on this album – from the title alone you can tell it’s not a happy song. What it does right though is through the smart and liberal use of video game samples, remind us of those afternoons after school or weekends in which we’d go to the arcade with friends and have a blast pumping those machines full of quarters. Palomo may have preferred another method of distraction, but there was a certain satisfaction to be gained from everything as classic as Pac Man to putting the pedal to the floor in a driving game or knowing that your parents didn’t want you playing Mortal Kombat. That he only finds sadness in an arcade while simultaneously exploiting video game sound effects is almost counterintuitive. This, coming from a guy that used to perform in his early pre-Neon Indian days while wearing a Nintendo Powerglove. It’s that uncertainty, that push towards something darker as the music itself sounds lighter than ever, that makes “Era Extra├▒a” weaker than its predecessor. For all the advances Neon Indian has made sonically, verbally and psychologically Palomo has run the other way. He’s retreated into this more pessimistic and serious place but can’t even be bothered to try a little sarcasm on for size. The record is still a success, but not nearly what it could have been had the outlook been a little brighter. With big, fun-sounding music, you want to have the artist reflect that back at you with their words. LCD Soundsystem had their fair share of sadder songs (“All My Friends”, “Someone Great”), but those were often balanced out with silly numbers (“North American Scum”, “Drunk Girls”). Once Alan Palomo is able to find that same dichotomy, Neon Indian will truly hit the big time.

Neon Indian – Polish Girl

Neon Indian – Hex Girlfriend

Neon Indian – Fallout

Buy “Era Extra├▒a” from Amazon

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