After touring their collective butts off for over three years behind debut EP Pikul (2005) and the ensuing debut record Carnavas (2006), Los Angeles foursome Silversun Pickups found themselves being rewarded with critical praise, a couple of hit singles and an expanding fan base drawn to its rocking yet atmospheric dream pop sound.
For a band with only a couple of EPs and records out, Silversun Pickups have already mastered the art of studio recording and production, with the help of Dave Cooley and mixer Tony Hoffer. Their Carnavas songs had a healthy amount of depth and repeat-worthy material (“Rusted Wheel,” “Three Seed,” and “Lazy Eye” being among them). The same team of musicians and producers helmed its follow-up Swoon (Dangerbird Records). Although there are arguably more layers of sound on the new album, the difference between it and the first record is that this new effort is just a few truly captivating songs short of being a truly great record.
Before the review itself goes any further, setting the record straight is in order here. SSPU may use Siamese Dream-like levels of distortion and fuzz on their records, but comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins are overstated and in fact, should be minimal. Bandleader Brian Aubert is flattered by the comparison but has told the media over the last couple of years (myself included) he never really understood it and forgot about the early Pumpkins records until well after Carnavas garnered critical praise and was made aware of it. FYI, one of the main reasons Siamese Dream has the overloaded guitar sound it has is because the Pumpkins dug MBV and its mixer Alan Moulder so much they hired him to mix the now classic alternative rock record.
The band is instead more influenced by the master of over-distorted guitars Kevin Shields/My Bloody Valentine, along with perhaps Secret Machines and Sonic Youth. Thus, anyone who still insists SSPU are or were influenced by the Pumpkins frankly has no idea what they are talking about. Carnavas never truly did sound like Siamese Dream. It just so happens that this group has brief similarities to the Windy City alt-rock legends here and there – “Lazy Eye” has key riffs that recall “Quiet,” as does “Well Thought Out Twinkles.” That said, the new record is its own beast, though thick, Kevin Shields-type guitars can still be heard at times, as on album closer “Surrounded (Or Spiraling)”.
Swoon’s best moments are when it gets a little epic, a little sassy, or aggressively heavy. Where “Draining” exemplifies the group’s newfound grand ambition, with its delicate and dark guitars that contrast with bright strings, “It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone” represents SSPU’s sexy side (particularly when bassist Nikki Monninger takes the mic). The betrayal-themed “There’s No Secrets This Year,” fuzzed-up loud rocker “Panic Switch,” and the crunchiest parts of “Substitution” represent the best of its heavy material. Speaking of “Substitution,” one of the many tracks that alternate between the light and the heavy, its lighter parts lead you to believe this could be seen as the peppy sequel to Carnavas track “Three Seed.”
Overall, there are no turn-offs or unlistenable tracks on Swoon, just a few songs that test your patience as you wait for the big, loud and fuzzy payoff. The fearless “Growing Old Is Getting Old,” which sees Aubert singing with a pre-pubescent-sounding tenor, is one such track.
All of the subtle and sonic elements of Carnavas are still present here (courtesy of keyboardist Joe Lester). What there is less of on this album is the shoegaze-like material of its earlier work. It instead has a mix of soft and loud guitars with lots of strings weaving above and below them – at least half of Swoon’s ten tracks contain some level of strings. Still, the music here is quite dramatic and dynamic, just not quite as dark as in the past.
Swoon is not exactly SSPU’s answer to The Verve’s Urban Hymns but the heavy amount of strings on this album makes you wonder what direction SSPU is going in. It’s their own sound for sure (despite the influences you may hear), one which could be categorized as soft-to-loud ‘n’ heavy chamber or dream pop. Whatever you want to call it, Swoon is a fine follow-up to Carnavas and the band itself is still exciting to follow.
Key tracks: “There’s No Secrets This Year,” “Substitution,” “Sort Of,” “Panic Switch,” “It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone.”
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