Initially, I was feeling damned determined to write an entire review of the latest album from the Silversun Pickups without namedropping that other band with whom they share the SP acronym. My rationale for this, to be perfectly honest, was based on stubborn and illogical principles; surely a 21st century indie rock band from the eternally hip Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles could not be a carbon copy of the Smashing Pumpkins (oops), those 90’s alt-rock titans who painstakingly melded their love of metal and psychedelia into a vitriolic blend of rage and Midwestern isolationism? The answer is shockingly complex. But regardless which side you veer toward, there is one universal: attaching the name of the Smashing Pumpkins to the Silversun Pickups belittles the tremendous accomplishments of the former and brings premature applause to the latter.
The Pickups started garnering Pumpkins comparisons back in 2006 when their debut, Carnavas, first dropped. The album, which sounded like it was dug out of a 10 year old time capsule, was appropriately saturated with layers of gritty guitar overdubs, swirling atmospheric flourishes, and the vocals of a man who also sounded like he occasionally sang through his nasal cavity. But where Billy Corgan was masterful in crafting complete albums that ran the gamut of human emotion from unbridled elation to bleak despair, Brian Aubert and his SoCal colleagues specialized more in a sound that was like a constant variation on “Quiet” and “Hummer”: gargantuan towers of guitar fuzz without the technical flair and lyrics that sounded less like poetic ruminations on life’s great struggles and more like the doe-eyed musings of infatuated teens.
Going with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach for their latest album, Swoon, it’s not terribly surprising to find the band once again brooding in a cauldron of fuzzy guitar riffs and percolating drum beats (albeit with the addition of the occasional string orchestra). Amidst lyrics of lies and deceit sung in a creepily androgynous voice, “There’s No Secret’s This Year” features an upbeat groove that is augmented by shards of six string crunch. It’s an energetic way to kick things off before the track dissolves and segues into the darkness of “The Royal We.” Complete with horror movie-worthy string glissandos and vocals that border on out of control in an attempt to validate the boldness of the lyrics (“We are ready for the siege and we are armed to the teeth”), the track somehow sounds at once familiar and yet wholly original. Other standout tunes include the lead single “Panic Switch,” which might just be the Pickups’ loudest song to date, and the pop-oriented “Substitution.”
For whatever slight variances the band indulges, they choose not to stray far from the path. While the Pumpkins were often criticized for their gratuitous use of overdubbing in the studio, there was little denying that the band knew how to exploit both ends of the dynamic spectrum, capable of going from a whisper to a roar faster than you could flick the toggle switch on a Fender Strat. Digital production being what it is these days, all of the dramatic highs and lows of the recording process have been compressed and therefore compromised. What this means is that even beautifully melancholy tunes like “Draining” and “Catch & Release” end up packing very little emotional punch. One thing that made the Pumpkins so irresistibly quirky was their willingness to experiment with new timbres in the studio. Though it didn’t always work, it made for an engaging listen. Silversun Pickups, anchored by Aubert’s high tenor and unlimited distortion pedal collection, unfortunately rely upon the same formula for most of the songs on Swoon. While it could be argued that the rhythm section of Nikki Monninger (bass) and Chris Guanlao (drums) brings an energy to this band in a way that D’Arcy and Jimmy Chamberlain were never able to collectively do in the Smashing Pumpkins, their talents are frequently overshadowed by the hypnotic swaths of keyboard and crushingly heavy walls of guitar that dominate the mix.
The Silversun Pickups have clearly studied the crib notes on the Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie… chapters of the Pumpkins’ playbook and logged a decent book report, but they are far from a thesis. The fuzzed out riffage and ethereal interludes are in place, but Swoon lacks the diverse textures, clever lyrics, and emotional depth that the Pumpkins honed over a 10 year span. And this is as it should be. The reason that the Silversun Pickups sound like no one except themselves is because they’ve managed to coalesce the most immediate sounds of their early 90’s influences with their own California upbringing. If, God forbid, they drop that glossy Golden State shimmer and move to Chicago, then I’ll start to worry.