Some bands have the unfortunate distinction of being constantly compared to an older, more accomplished group, their development stunted in the shadow of someone else’s former greatness. The Los Angeles outfit Silversun Pickups are one such band, judged by their apparent similarity to the formerly great Smashing Pumpkins. Shared initials, similar love of buzz-saw effects, and a lead singer with a peculiar voice define both groups, but Silversun Pickups have largely steered clear of the Pumpkins’ infinite sadness and their more esoteric songwriting.
“Neck of the Woods,” out last week, may come to be known as the Pickups’ “Adore,” referring to the unexpectedly electronic 1998 Pumpkins album. Unfortunately, the records have little in common, aside from introducing sequenced drums to an established four-piece rock formula. In fact, the new record seems to draw more frequently from another pre-millenium source — Radiohead’s seminal “OK Computer.” Silversun Pickups aren’t retreating into darkness here, but exploring the parameters of their sound. Considering that “Swoon,” their second album, had already overextended the anthemic dream-pop of their debut, it’s a useful reconsideration.
Immediately upon hearing “Skin Graph,” the album’s opener, I made the assumption that keyboardist/knob-twiddler Joe Lester renegotiated his contract before this album’s production. In the minute-plus intro to the record, Lester’s stuttering square wave competes with frontman Brian Aubert’s chiming guitar, an uncontested force on the previous albums. Lester has done well to step out from his textural playing on most Pickups songs, offering a welcome foil to Aubert’s oft-repetitive fuzz.
Aubert himself has made plenty of progress since “Swoon.” He twists a seven-count undistorted guitar figure around “Make Believe,” and heads for some My Bloody Valentine-like grind on “Mean Spirits.” He also boasts a much heartier singing voice than his usual reedy screaming, reaching for a new-wave croon on “The Pit.” Despite seeming reserved on this record, Aubert is making moves toward being a more sustainably interesting frontman, hinting at the greatest success of “Neck of the Woods” — it’s a career-building record for the group, a sign that they have more to offer than the same talents they’ve been selling since 2005.
The album’s advances didn’t occur without omitting some of the band’s strengths, however. Bassist Nikki Monninger seems to have passed almost entirely on this one, with few of her usually strident backup vocals and much of her playing obscured by Lester’s synth. Though she may simply be harder to notice amid the new atmospherics, Monninger’s absence is another sign that Aubert and Lester are running “Neck of the Woods.” Christopher Guanlao also deigns to play alongside a drum machine, a sad fate for such a passionate player, though he still gets to break out as on “Busy Bees.” It’s a shame that the rhythm section is so frequently pushed into the background, but the sacrifice is worth seeing the band’s unexplored dimensions.
Though it may not be their finest, nor their most consistent, “Neck of the Woods” is Silversun Pickups’ fresh attempt at their craft, and it’s worth several listens. It may not translate live, at least not yet, but no doubt they’ll be worth following after working so hard to push their sound. Hopefully their experimentation will yield further successes, and that the next record won’t take another three years.