[20 May 2014]
Silversun Pickups get compared to golden-era Smashing Pumpkins. A lot. The comparisons are founded, if a bit misaligned. The Pumpkins’ flare for the dramatic, religious, and theatric, seep through the filter of their enigmatic singer/guitarists/guru Billy Corgan. And much of Silversun Pickups, especially on The Singles Collections, cribs their drawn out fuzz, their shoegaze influence, and their singer/guitarist, Brian Aubert, pushes his vocals from the same brainy, nasal region as Corgan.
Mind you, drawing comparisons to one of the biggest alternative success stories of the ‘90s isn’t a bad spot to be in. And Silversun Pickups are built for the same arena rock blowout that the Pumpkins can muster. But, regardless of the surface similarities, much of the comparisons are nostalgic in nature and dressed up disguises for empty holes in indie music’s desire to sing along to something heavier in nature and lyrically sturdy. Silversun Pickups fill that void admirably, a blessing and a curse for their brand of smart, intense, sonically potent music.
The Singles Collection is simultaneously a worthy document of a band and a wholly unnecessary one, too. Every seemingly indie band with any type of crossover appeal can scoff at a collection of singles. Silversun Pickups has said that they don’t see themselves as a singles band, admitting what we all know, that singles collections typically fulfill two purposes: contractual obligations and/or time fill between new albums. Collections like this one can remind us of why we loved a band in the first place (e.g., The Killers, Direct Hits) or demonstrate the slow evolution of a band into something new (e.g, any New Order/Joy Division collection). For Silversun Pickups, this collection acts as both; a reminder that their melodic, grunge inspired singles are highly repeatable and sonically meticulous, and, too, that the band isn’t resting on their laurels, rehashing the same formula for later albums.
“Kissing Families”, the only track to make it off the far-underrated Pikul EP shows off Silversun Pickups in their fledgling stages. It’s the only track to make use of empty space, as Aubert’s vocals are more remote, alone in space, while an acoustic guitar (the only time that instrument shows up) drives the main riff. There’s a refrain sung by bassist Nikki Monninnger, a lone cello solo (performed by Tanya Haden of the Haden Triplets fame), and warped psychedelic guitar solo that would become a sonic trademark of the band on later tracks. “Kissing Families” is a brick-and-mortar beginning that loops directly into the ubiquitous “Lazy Eye”. Rock Band and Pumpkin fans alike can easily identify “Lazy Eye” (it really is the sister-song to the Pumpkins equally ubiquitous “1979”), and its ubiquity doesn’t diminish it’s hook. “Lazy Eye”, “Little Lover’s So Polite”, and “Well Thought Out Twinkles” catapulted 2006’s Carnavas to the Billboard charts, selling nearly 435,000 copies since its release. The songs are immediately recognizable, connecting viscerally with an audience hungover from the wild yelps of Animal Collective and burnt out on the majesticness of Arcade Fire. At the end of the day, the message that Silversun Pickups wrought was clearly received: it’s the melodies, stupid. Sing along if you want, there’s room for celebration in indie rock.
Swoon, their sophomore LP, is more desperate, with built in malice. You can hear it in the bigger, crunchier guitar lines, the intense string arrangement on “The Royal We”, and most clearly in the song titles. No more lovers or twinkles here. They’ve been replaced with panic switches and a glaring unseen eye (“The Royal We”). Aubert’s lyrics aren’t political, per se, they’re loose strings of images, sometimes startling, sometimes confusing: “Pink slip, inviting me inside/ I want to burn skin and brand what once was mine/ but the red news came ripping in to fight.” More often than not, the lyrical subjects as in service of Aubert’s hopscotch song structures. Swoon contained more traditional choruses than Carnavas (both “Lazy Eye” and “Little Lover’s So Polite” are missing choruses), but the band builds tension with their instruments, especially Chris Guanlao’s manic, controlled drumming and Nikki Monninnger tumbling bass lines.
Singles from their third LP, Neck of the Woods start to show a turn in the band’s sound, notably in “The Pit” where electronic drums show up in a classic New Order left-turn. Likewise, the only new track on the collection, “Cannibal”, uses the same electronic drum sound to a lesser effect. It’s the weakest track of the bunch, a used, quick snippet that lack all of the fundamental elements that make Silversun Pickups so damn listenable. Lyrically, the singles from Neck of the Woods are more focused. The band noted that the album was inspired by horror movies and “Blood Mary (Nerve Endings)” and “The Pit” tread this theme carefully, never falling into disarray or horror movie camp, while “Dots and Dashes (Enough Already)” helps the band gain more footing in their electronic soundscape.
For all purposes, The Singles Collection should not work as an album. The shoegaze, dream arenas that Silversun Pickups have created work best on a full LP where the band members can stretch their wings and indulge in aural textures and more bleeding guitar noise. But The Singles Collection works as a Polaroid to capture Silversun Pickups mid-career, taking a quiet pause, brimming with potential energy, before their next anticipated leap.