That’s the direction all of the early descriptions of Silversun Pickups’ new album “Neck of the Woods” were pointing as the band gave updates from the studio. Throw in the foreboding tone of the three song “Seasick” EP they dropped over the Summer that contained a few leftover tracks from their incredibly successful 2009 effort “Swoon” and it wasn’t too far fetched that “Neck of the Woods” might end up as a dark, ominous record. But like most things in the music world, until it actually emerges from your speakers there’s no telling what to expect.
Regardless of the fact that I would consider this my most anticipated album of 2012, “Neck of the Woods” is a big album in the world of SSPU. Coming off the smashing success of “Swoon” and early singles like “Lazy Eye”, their third full length album is undoubtedly the true test to see if they can capture and convert their signature sound into true staying power. Silversun Pickups set off on this album with the intention that they weren’t building anything within a set model or method. The previous success was encouraging, but at the end of the day falling into a specific mold wasn’t what they were looking for on their third full length release. The first single off “Neck of the Woods” couldn’t have delivered that message any louder.
With the release of the first single “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)”, Silversun Pickup fans flocked to the band's Facebook page and found an extra stow away that no one knew was coming along for the ride: a heavy dose of electronica. Joe Lester’s keyboards have always been an integral part of Silversun Pickups’ sound, but this was a bit of a different direction given the dominance of their presence in the intro. Now before you stop reading the review and swear off SSPU forever and accusing them of being hipster sellouts, we’re not talking a crazy jump into the electronic deep end ala U2’s “Pop” disaster. Think more along the lines of MGMT or Temper Trap, then picture it on a considerably smaller, more dreamlike (as the band likes to put it) level.
The electronic additions are more for ambiance than anything. “We wanted to play with negative space,” says lead singer Brian Aubert, “We’re always trying to achieve dynamic, but sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle. This time we just pulled things in different directions and made things crisper and more angular.” What is immediately evident on “Neck of the Woods” is the brilliance in which they use these new elements to accentuate the sound you were expecting. Anytime SSPU confronts you electronically, you’ll generally find them exploding away from that moment into a torrent of the guitar and drum packed sound that hooked you on their music in the first place. Fire up the opener “Skin Graph”, it’s a perfect example. Having initially only heard ‘Bloody Mary” I was concerned at how much electronic influence this album was going to rely on. After hearing “Neck of the Woods” in its entirety, I find the execution to be spot on and a perfect evolution of the unique sonic dynamic of Silversun Pickups.
In my feeble journalistic mind, I view the layout of a Silversun Pickups song to be a bit like a twisting mountain road. The bottom of the hill always has different scenery than your destination at the top with a bunch of ‘must see’ sites to along the way. A SSPU song never ends where it begins, it builds and flows but rarely (if ever) is written as a round trip. This song structure helps build tension, angst, excitement, and intrigue into the music itself. Throw in Brian Aubert’s amazingly unique vocal squelch and the songs draw you in like a moth to the flame. “Swoon” and “Carnavas” both embodied what I considered to be more of a rhythm focus. There was a continuity and blend of sound throughout. In contrast, at times, “Neck of the Woods” almost feels like the Silversun Pickups version of a guitar record. While the underlying guitar rhythms are still the foundation, there are several chunky, agitated guitar solos that add to the character of the album. Lead guitar dominates “Mean Spirits”, breaks away on a tangent in “Simmer”, and playfully revels in some distortion on “Out of Breath”.
For Silversun purists fret not as all of the other elements that bring you to the SSPU table still play key roles. Nikki Monninger’s amazingly heavy basslines still carry the load on “Gun-Shy Sunshine” and keep the guitar in check on “Busy Bees”. Subtlety has always been the strength of her persona and musical style; she delivers it in that same fashion with amazing prowess as she paces the undertones for the record. The quick bass thump on “Dots and Dashes (Enough Already)” may be some of the best studio work she’s done to date.
Christopher Guanlao’s drums again play a critical role in capturing the tone of the songs to better convey the essence of Aubert’s vocals and lyrics. Guanlao very well may have some of the fastest beats and one of the simplest kits in the business; No fancy tricks, just lightning quick hands that remain alive and well on “Neck of the Woods”. Having had the opportunity to contribute more time in the studio, Guanlao builds on his previous body of work as he tears through “Simmer”, sets a light mood on “Make Believe”, and rips the cover off the album on “Skin Graph”. On a few tracks like “Here We Are (Chancer)”, Aubert’s original drum machine tracks were left in giving Guanlao a bit more liberty to focus on unique fills and paces while he breaks away from being the sole provider of percussion. Unless your name is Lars or Tommy, drummers are often forgotten. Christopher Guanlao adds the franticness that is often the driving force behind the Silversun Pickups music, it’s definitely time to start giving his work and unique style its proper due.
Back to the supposed ‘darkness’ I was expecting. Prior to their studio time wrapping up, Aubert made several comments that they were almost scaring themselves in the studio based on the place they were writing this record from. Musically I hear a lot of tension and defensiveness, but it’s far from dark. “Here We Are (Chancer)” is drenched in uncertainty and a bit of agony. Upon entering “The Pit”, which is probably their largest electronic risk taker as its intro and bassline reminds one of a Depeche Mode song, you’ll find a feeling of dread that runs deep. “Been told to be afraid of everything that lives within,” cries Aubert, “But it’s much worse where you are so will you go for it? I have a feeling you might.....” It’s undoubtedly heavy stuff, but these are far from being surprising subjects and moods within Silversun Pickups’ songs based on the history of their musical catalog.
Many of the themes throughout the songs on “Neck of the Woods” are written from the perspective of an outsider looking in, as much of the inspiration came from time Aubert spent touring Europe during their pre-writing hiatus. The lyrical theme of solitude comes through quite clear. Aubert’s one of a kind vocal style allows songs to reach heights and feelings that most lead singers can only dream of. As all Silversun records are, it’s an emotional album, almost to the point of being what I would consider bipolar based on the quick changes and shifts. The emotional extremism they musically pack into each song is undoubtedly what sets them apart from just about everything else out there.
For Silversun Pickups this album was about removing constraints from the band’s typical writing process. Aubert intimated that they wanted the songs to come into their own, “ Instead of pushing them in unnatural directions, let’s let them breathe. Even if we find them strange, let’s try and figure them out.” With the addition of electronic elements they achieved that goal and found a new area they could effectively dabble in, it’s a progression of their sound while still celebrating the roots that make it a Silversun Pickup’s record. After several days with the album, probably the only concern I have in listening to “Neck of the Woods” is how well it will play to the radio. True fans of music and the band won’t care as the album easily stands on its own as their best piece of work to date. That being said, with fingers crossed, I hold some hope that an album like this can break the cookie cutter pattern that is currently dominating the rock world. I’d love nothing more than for music to find its way into this neck of the woods.
For more about Silversun Pickups: www.SilversunPickups.com
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As the Webmaster and Founder of Rocksposure.com, Chris Brach is always looking for new music from up and coming rock bands. You never know, they could be our next Artist of the Month! If there is something you think he should give a listen to, email him at GetRocked@Rocksposure.com