Los Angeleno indie rockers Silversun Pickups are not the Smashing Pumpkins incarnate, and it sometimes feels like they’ll be spending the rest of their careers gamely trying to prove it. An overwhelming noisewash of guitar distortion surged beneath lead singer Brian Aubert’s anxious, brittle vocals on the band’s 2006 full-length debut Carnavas and especially on its 2009 sophomore effort, Swoon. This purposeful alchemy amounted to a brazen voodoo summons of the faded spirits of Billy Corgan’s pre-bald-pated-superstardom creative peak of the early ‘90s, specifically Gish and Siamese Dream.
Even as Corgan himself necromanced the Pumpkins back from the cold grave, Silversun Pickups were distilling his band’s early, edgy essence into a potent new brew. After all, what was their signature debut hit single “Lazy Eye” but a frothed-up prequel to “1979”, transposing a tone of ceaseless, dynamic immediacy onto Corgan’s elegantly measured reminiscence of juvenile existentialism?
Neck of the Woods sees Silversun Pickups’ gaze averted from their shoes and turned instead to the hard ground that they stand upon. This subtle but unmistakable shift is manifested clearly in the album cover art. Carnavas featured a stacked interstellar monolith the hue of fresh-frozen ice and Swoon was visualized by smears of crimson, maroon, and black like a bloodstain on a microscope slide (both were paintings by Darren Waterston). Neck of the Woods breaks from this aesthetic, its cover subjugated to a dusk-hour suburban house of horrible solidity. Our perspective is that of the nosy neighbor or the stalking burglar, peering over the rear picket fence at glowing windows.
The shift is also subtly but unmistakably audible in the songs themselves, of course. Aubert’s settled guitar habits of oscillating between fuzzy distortion tidal waves and febrile rhythmic skipping are pushed further into darker spaces, certainly. But the towering guitar structures erected herein gain not only greater ineffable menace but also firmer form and precision. All of these metamorphoses commence in unison on the mighty creepiness of the album’s near-seven-minute centerpiece, “Simmer”. And does it ever, percolating with delineated dread. Aubert’s lyrics are more a tone poem of paranoia rather than anything distinctly symbolic, dotted with suggestive words like “seeping”, “crept”, and “spiders”.
If no other cut is quite as memorable as “Simmer” – although the potent, nervously-wrought opener “Skin Graph” and the tensile vocal-enabled strength of “Busy Bees” come awfully close – the aural character of the album stays marvelously consistent while also incorporating varied sonic textures. Bloc Party and Snow Patrol producer Jacknife Lee probably has less to do with honing the Silversun Pickups sound than with that of his big-name British acts, but he collaborates nicely with the band’s multi-instrumentalist and oddly-credited “sonic manipulator” Joe Lester on a variety of striking production sleights-of-hand (although those xylophonic synths at the start of the single “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)” are a bit of a producer’s trademark). Aubert’s guitars predominate, but Chris Guanlao’s stiffened drumskins bear much of the weight as well, threatening to erupt into machine-gun relentlessness at any moment and often making all too good on that threat.
Amidst the ruthless, almost cruel alternation of tension and release that mostly characterizes Neck of the Woods, there is a pair of notable exceptions. One illustrates the success of Silversun Pickups’ attempts at modest creative evolution, the other their failure at the same. The success is “Here We Are (Chancer)”, a compelling mid-tempo mutant ballad that sounds like an outtake from In Rainbows. Where Aubert so often relies on his prodigious guitar visions to carry the heavy melodic weight aloft, here the instrumentation is the wing and the vocal melody the airfoil. The failure is “The Pit”, a toxic mix of insipid dance-rock clichés and painfully stupid lyrics that reverts to Carnavas-vintage affectations in the chorus. Still, even in this, the album’s worst song, we’re gifted with a fairly amazing bridge. Even in their least inspired moments, Silversun Pickups have something interesting on offer. If they can only outrun a certain dominant influence, they’ll really be going somewhere.