According to a recent interview given by Silversun Pickup frontman Brian Aubert, it was the singer’s Topanga Canyon upbringing that informed much of the material presented on the indie rock band’s third LP, Neck of the Woods. Anyone who’s ever returned to their childhood neighborhood as an adult after a lengthy sabbatical knows full well that unexpectedly intense emotions cam sometimes surface. In the case of this Southern California foursome, a recent pass through Aubert’s stomping grounds just outside ofLos Angeles provided the catalyst for some heady introspection and reflection. For a band that so aptly embraces dreamy and bittersweet tones in their songwriting, it seems entirely germane that they’ve chosen this record to take stock of where they are and how they got here.
A passing glance at the new album’s cover – an indistinct residence in need of a paint job and some light landscaping – confirms that we do indeed have America’s storied suburbs being used as a vehicle for self-examination once more. For a band so notorious ensconced in their 1990s grunge influences, the admittedly mild flavors of 80s pop that come through on Neck of the Woods mark a palpable shift in direction for Silversun Pickups. One could argue that the likes of Neon Indian and M83 have all but made a cliché out of the music from the Reagan era, but it stands to reason that most anyone currently between the ages of 30 and 40 would view with that time with at least a modicum of nostalgia.
Neck of the Woods is no doe-eyed retrospective though. This band’s calling card has always been a fine balance of menace and melancholy, and their latest offering delivers both in spades. Lead single “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)” seems to tip the scale more toward the latter, with Joe Lester’s shimmering keyboard textures and bassist Nikki Monninger’s backup vocals accentuating the forlorn tone of lyrics like, “They drowned you out / and left you with the sounds of spoiled goodnights / replacing lullabies.” At the other end of the spectrum we find “Mean Spirits,” which comes at you with barnburner force before settling into a muted blues riff, and “Simmer,” a 7-minute epic that allows for plenty of fretboard heroics from Aubert and inquisitions that suggest suppressed rage: “What am I waiting for / some army to break in? / What am I aiming towards / a fight that never ends?” The shoegaze predilections may have been dialed down so that the hooks achieve greater potency, but this is still unmistakably the work of the band that first wowed us some 5 years ago with “Lazy Eye.”
For all of the comforting familiarity of the aforementioned songs, Neck of the Woods also finds the group in experimentation mode. “Make Believe” sports a taut groove in 7/8 from drummer Chris Guanlao that comes off with shocking levels of ease when paired with Aubert’s guitar arpeggiations and wordless vocal inflections. “Busy Bees” utilizes an off-kilter guitar rhythm to create the illusion of shifting meters despite a propulsive 4/4 drumbeat.
Though anyone who’s seen SSPU in concert will be quick to tell you that the band is so much more than just Brian Aubert, their studio recordings often belie this fact; it’s all too easy to become entranced by the man’s swirling guitar tone and eccentric voice. Neck of the Woods is the first instance in the group’s catalog where the songs feel as democratic as their live shows – Nikki Monninger’s dulcet voice provides a nice counterpoint to Aubert’s raspy tenor time and again, while Chris Guanlao lays down a number of electronic drum textures – heard to best effect on the ballad “Here We Are (Chancer)” and synth-pop gem “The Pit.”
The real MVP on this record though, is keyboard player Joe Lester. Maybe chalk it up to producer Jacknife Lee’s touch at the controls, but Lester’s contributions on the keys are more palpable than ever before. It’s his lush piano chords that give “Here We Are” its hypnotic rush, and it’s his bizarre synthesizer mutations at the end of “Gun Shy Sunshine” that nearly sends the track into the psychedelic terrain most often frequented by the Flaming Lips. His presence is so strong, in fact, that there are moments in the heavily atmospheric “Dots and Dashes (Enough Already)” – albeit brief – where you might think you’ve stumbled upon a lost Coldplay track. I mean that in a totally complimentary way, too.
So does SSPU’s new album validate any journey of self-discovery as previous purported? Hard to say. It’s far from a revelation, but Neck of the Woods is nonetheless indicative of a band that’s examining its past so that history does not repeat itself. In the process, they’ve retained their core qualities while also branching out into new sonic territory. Neck of the Woods may not be album of the year material, but it’s the best album in this band’s catalog by a long shot.