Silversun Pickups – [Album]

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Sophomore years suck. The sparkling shiny newness the world carried Freshman year has worn off, yet you’re not advanced enough (say, Seniority status) to just give the authorities the finger and walk. No, you’re stuck in jaded misanthropy, knowing just enough to avoid the soda machine that steals your quarters and the jock table, but not enough to really advance yourself.

I’m referring to the world of music, of course.

Sophomore albums have the bad habit of leaving a sour note in your mouth. They often don’t feel like advances for the band you loved at first sight—much like the chances you had with that pretty girl in home room freshman year. Rather they often seem like steps backward, away from creative progress. Again, like the chances you had with that pretty girl in home room. But the Silversun Pickups are working to break away from the sophomore stigma with their second album Swoon. And with this album, they just might get to jump up a grade.

The album is a strong effort to do something new. Featuring the Fab Four (not the Fab Four, but a quartet all the same) of Brian Aubert, Nikki Monninger, Christopher Guanlao, and Joe Lester, Swoon follows up their 2005 EP Pikul and their debut album Carnavas—which birthed a couple of strong hits like “Lazy Eye” into the musical world. But instead of sticking with past tactics, the group that’s been defined as ‘dream pop/shoegaze/indie music’ breaks away from their previous steady, middle-of-the-road sound and bounces the rhythm of Swoon all over the album, while still keeping a handle on their eerily beautiful vocals and particular sound.

The opener, “There’s No Secrets This Year,” sets a good example for the rest of the album. It opens with wailing electric guitars that, at first, seem a little off-putting, but with the combined crashing cymbals, drums and Aubert’s voice, the song becomes lighter, fun. It flirts with the line between harder rock and summer sugar pop (think Yellowcard, American Hi-Fi). The guitar work continues this little ruse, teasing the edges of grungy rock with its high use of distortion, but not quite making that commitment to crossing over. The drums provided by Guanlao keep it light, with fun quick beats matched by running lyrics and Aubert’s vocal quality. This is Hot Topic’s summer bop mix, summer fun music for alt. rock/vaguely punk kids. And that is no complaint; this is good light summer-flavored listening for those who like a little more depth, destruction and emotion to their music.

This style recurs through the album but isn’t the constant. “The Royal We” makes use of progressive guitar work mixed with intermittent bursts of orchestral strings (Remember those? Silversun made use of those in their first album.) twined with distorted riffs. Aubert’s voice comes off as somewhat ethereal and pained. It feels somewhat shoegazer—this one being the epic-sounding song, massive and thickly layered, topped off with intense singing striving for passion and fury, a target that’s pretty much hit.

Then from that crashing sound of many instruments dog-piling each other into a beautiful maelstrom comes “Growing Old is Getting Old,” which turns you on your ear. It’s simple in construction; twinkling guitar work, that steady clock-like rhythm and ghostly vocal works—Aubert teams up with Monninger, which is a beautiful and devastating combo. This song differentiates from the rest at this point, a jarring moment of contradiction that shocks you back into the album. It’s almost sleepy, like walking in a fog. Heavier guitars fall in roughly halfway through the song, the drums kick up, like the fog just grew intense. The song climbs into a demanding crescendo with all the instruments crashing into one another; heavy drums, churning guitar solos, high wailing in the background, ambient keyboards, all sweeping up and building to a dizzying degree. A height you’re not expecting.

That crescendo is probably the strongest recurring theme. While all the ten songs vary in styles and sounds, that disorienting (in a good way) crescendo that leaves you audibly disoriented crops up in almost every song. And while a climax is expected in any song, the Silversun Pickups are doing it here at a whole other height. Others might be strolling up hills or taking nature walks; Swoon is taking a crack at K2.

But the change in style is key here; it keeps the album fresh and interesting. “It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone” has guitar parts that almost feel like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and then the next song is “Panic Switch,” which is highly distorted, distressed feeling song—think Smashing Pumpkins. “Substitution” starts with an almost 90s rock intro, smooth electric guitar with an ‘I’m-in-my-mid-20s-and-happily-lost’ sound, feeling more grounded, a foot closer to indie rock and a step away from the shoegazer/electronica/grunge we’ve been entertaining so far. And “Catch & Release” is a drop back, slower, more thoughtful, and sleepy, like a narcoleptic’s eventual dream.

The Silversun Pickups have made a strong effort to break away from the curse of the sophomore slump, and have a lot to show for it with Swoon. With sounds reminiscent of upperclassmen like the Smashing Pumpkins, AFI and My Bloody Valentine, while still retaining originality, this album shows how sharp this band can be. Well done, Silversun Pickups. You’re moving to the front of the class.


Silversun Pickups – Swoon is out now. Buy it on Amazon.

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