Admit it, as soon as this post punk thing started to get stale, you knew a ‘90s alternative rock revival was only a matter of time. At a time when American guitar-based rock has veered ever so close to self-parody, from the hyperkinetic caterwauling of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! to the hair metal flash and questionable sincerity of emocore, those of us who devoured indie rock 10 to 15 years ago can’t help but let our minds wander back to a time when there seemed to be a never-ending supply of bands that specialized in big guitars and big hooks. Smashing Pumpkins, Sugar, Dinosaur Jr., Velocity Girl, Veruca Salt, Magnapop… you could go on and on listing bands who scored college radio hits from that time. Say what you will about today’s indie rock (with so many bands out there, it’s not like there’s a serious dearth of good music), but it’s been such a long time since we got anything comparable to such terrific singles as “Helpless” and “Seether”, that we can’t help but hope that will all change.
With bands like Asobi Seksu and Film School deftly combining early ‘90s shoegazer tones with good pop songwriting, California outfit Silversun Pickups heads in a similar direction, but it’s far from a facile collection of hooks and melodies, as the quartet shows impressive depth on their debut full-length. The focal point is singer/guitarist Brian Aubert, who adds layers of guitars, ranging from chiming, to insistent, to droning, while singing in a compellingly androgynous voice that instantly conjures memories of Billy Corgan 15 years ago. And that’s not where the Pumpkins comparison ends, as the band draws from both the moody Gish and the more accessible Siamese Dream, with hints of Ride, the Pixies, and My Bloody Valentine tossed in as well, making for a sound that has the potential to go over very well with those who remember the Pumpkins’ salad days.
At nearly an hour long, there’s a lot to digest on Carnavas, and it’s no surprise that the more upbeat material wins us over the quickest. The lively “Well Thought Out Twinkles” begins with a groove riff that sounds like something Wolfmother would do, but instead quickly veers off into a highly melodic verse dominated by Aubert’s distinct rasp and lilting chords before the primary riff makes an explosive re-entry. “Little Lover’s So Polite” sounds reminiscent of Guided By Voices, dominated by a wonderfully fuzzed-out bassline courtesy Nikki Monninger, who plays Kim Deal to Aubert’s Black Francis during the bridges, the duo’s shared lead vocals complementing each other nicely. “Future Foe Scenarios” shifts from winsome to brooding, a tense number that features some of Aubert’s best lyrics, his imagery leaving an indelible impression (“A motorcade of ‘meant to be’s’ / Parades of beauty queens / Where soft entwines make kindling / These many detailed things / Like broken nails and plastic rings”). The wistful “Common Reactor” brings the album to a sublime close, the insistent melody underscored by squalls of guitar drone before careening to a distorted climax.
Solid as the aforementioned songs are, the more pensive music might prove to be even more rewarding in the long run, as the band shows there’s more to the music than just noisy guitars and contagious choruses. “Melatonin” is an understated opening track, Aubert and Monninger sharing vocal duties over a wall of crashing chords, while Monninger’s ascending bassline carries the tetchy “Waste it On” and Aubert’s lithe guitar accents suit the Grandaddy-esque “Lazy Eye” well. Keyboardist takes full advantage of the quieter moments to add a dreampop element, good examples being the languid “Checkered Floor” and the lovely “Rusted Wheel”. Meanwhile, “Three Seed” provides the prettiest moment on Carnavas, the kind of bleary-eyed ballad that would have been a perfect fit on the great Singles soundtrack, standing alongside the Pumpkins’ “Drown”.
Assured as Carnavas is, it has its imperfections, the most noticeable glitch being the lack of a tight rhythm section, Christopher Guanlao’s predictable drumming sounding utilitarian at best, and pedestrian at worst (if anything, reminding us of just how talented a percussionist Jimmy Chamberlin is). There’s not an original idea on the album whatsoever, but Silversun Pickups, flaws and all, show enough vitality in their performance to win us over, reminding us of a time when hooks mattered, and American indie rock ruled, and restoring hope that it just might happen again.