[20 April 2009]
L.A. is often accused of being more style than substance — a plastic empire built on glitz, ditz, and Botox. But, to be fair, L.A. shouldn’t be reduced to that stereotype. If anything, the City of Angels is a city of contradictions. Glamorous and gritty, sexy and smoggy, tantalizing and tawdry, L.A. just seems more confused than contrived, twirling its hair and smacking its gum and saying, “Like, um, yeah, I’ll be whatever you want me to be” (sorry, there’s that stereotype again). But really the city tries too hard to be something it’s not and many people rightfully perceive this as pretension and placelessness — I mean why the hell are there palm trees in the middle of the desert anyway?
It makes sense then that a group like Silversun Pickups is based in this mixed-up metropolis. Ever since their 2006 debut, Carnavas, the four-piece has found success pretending to be something they’re not: the Smashing Pumpkins. From the towering walls of grainy, fuzzed-out guitars to the loud-quiet-loud dynamics of each song to singer Brian Aubert’s breathy Billy Corgan whine, even down to the girl bassist and the band’s initials, Silversun Pickups seem satisfied to be someone else. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this — bands are derivative all the time. And maybe it’s high time that indie rock revisits the halcyon days of ‘90’s alt-rock, even though mainstream rock has been regurgitating bastardized versions of the ‘90s for more than a decade…ahem, Nickelback. But it’s not like the Pickups are trying to pick up where the Pumpkins (at least the ‘90’s version) left off either; instead, they sound like they’re trying to replicate Billy Corgan and co.’s career trajectory to a T.
If Carnavas, with its swirling metal-tinged solos and dreamy, layered melodies, was Silversun Pickups’ Siamese Dream, then the new album, Swoon, is their Mellon Collie — maybe not in scope, but definitely in sound and inconsistency. The loud is louder, the quiet is quieter, the fuzz is fuzzier and, with a 16-piece orchestra and an impenetrable stratum of effects-laden, Pumpkins-aped guitars, the indulgent is even more indulgent. But whereas Mellon Collie’s hit-or-miss ambition translated into a compelling, yet often onerous listen spread over 28 songs, Swoon’s 10 tracks are about as challenging as a Daughtry record.
On “There’s No Secrets This Year”, over-produced guitars swap jangle and distortion in predictable verse-chorus patterns, while an easy up-tempo backbeat frames Aubert’s Corgan-esque, angst-fully ambiguous lyrics: “Who would know / All the reasons you’re alone / If the seeds were planted firm my dear / Would the banshees tear it all apart.” On “Catch and Release”, a generic grunge-ballad riff tries to soften and strip down the overly saturated sound, but it just comes off like a good bathroom break song. And on “The Royal We”, cellos and violins do their best “Disarm” as flannel-shirted guitars puff out their chests and Aubert cries, “How many times do you wanna die? / How many ways do you wanna die?” And while Aubert still appropriates the early-90’s alt-outcast wail, even down to the overdubbed scream behind the singing, at least he sounds less like Billy Corgan on this album. Unfortunately, he now sounds like Quentin Tarantino fronting a Smashing Pumpkins tribute band.
Swoon’s self-induced flaws are endless, which is disappointing because Silversun Pickups seem like great musicians who could easily craft an exciting song — if they stepped out of the Pumpkins’ shadow. In the end though, Swoon is the sound of a band that’s uncomfortable in its own skin. The album’s overzealous orchestration and air-brushed histrionics do nothing to separate Silversun Pickups from their “sounds like” label, and really the record simply cements their status as L.A.’s spray-tanned Smashing Pumpkins. Maybe they should move to San Francisco.