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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