Silversun Pickups, ‘Neck of the Woods’ – Album Review
We praise artists for making the hero’s journey: going out into the world, or deep within themselves, and bringing back something new. Some invent a new form, like the Beatles, and some take traditions in a new direction, like Jack White. Those who come up short are dismissed as redundant, uninspired, having been done before. Now into their third album, ‘Neck of the Woods,’ Silversun Pickups are yet to bring home anything new.
The Pickups, whose name derives from journeys to a Los Angeles liquor store, and who have already gathered a Best New Artist Grammy nod and a Top 10 album debut, enjoy a high level of commercial success. They have, in their glossy grunge sound — think the Smashing Pumpkins if you removed anything abrasive — found a comfy space in the landscape of modern rock.
‘Neck of the Woods’ will surely chart, the band will play all the late night shows, their music might make it into an aggressive ‘Gossip Girl’ scene, and they will enjoy airplay in the modern rock echo chamber, similar to Silverlake (that’s their hip L.A. neighborhood) contemporaries Rilo Kiley. But while Jenny Lewis and her band have grown from pensive to strutting, the Pickups continue to wander down the dead end alleyway of ‘Carnavas’ and ‘Swoon’ before. The resultant sound is as familiar as macaroni and cheese, and leaves you feeling just as bloated.
It’s no question that the band can play: both ‘Mean Spirits’ and ‘Simmer,’ coming halfway through ‘Neck of the Woods,’ build with big fat guitar licks and drummer Chris Guanlao’s inventive rhythms. With members of the band playing together for nearly a decade, they’re quite tight, and can craft a single: ‘Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)’ will jump up the iTunes and YouTube charts, and it should. Overall, the album’s production borders on U2-level sheen, thanks to Jackknife Lee, who also produced Snow Patrol and Bloc Party. While painful to say it, what’s lacking in the band is frontman Brian Aubert.
Aubert’s gained comparisons to Billy Corgan, a similarly nasal-voiced vocalist. But while Corgan’s lyrics were (at one time, at least) of depth, Aubert’s are shallow: dude even uses “heart” as a verb in ‘Busy Bees’ (Really?). While poor lyricism can be explained away by the “voice as instrument” crutch, the instrumentality of Aubert’s voice is not high. By the end of these 11 songs, it grates.
One cannot help but think the uninspired lyricism and limited singing constrains a band that is clearly talented. While there are satisfying guitar pop songs here that fall somewhere in between Fallout Boy and Soundgarden — ‘The Pit’ brims with teenage restlessness, ‘Gun-shy Sunshine’ has deliciously outsized guitars — this ‘Neck of the Woods’ has been known before.