Silverlake’s esteemed non-hipster quartet Silversun Pickups may have drawn from some healthy ’90s influences (My Bloody Valentine most notably) during the first half of their 10 years worth of recordings – and no matter how many times the know-it-all writers at sites like AllMusic and Pitchfork say it, Smashing Pumpkins were never one of them – but they’ve always had their own, distinctive sound. Call it shoegaze pop, if you will.
But starting with third full-length Neck of the Woods (2012, produced by Jacknife Lee) and continuing with their newly released fourth LP Better Nature, SSPU has truly expanded its musical horizons. Unfortunately, this led to mixed results on Woods.
Since that release, the group has parted ways with Dangerbird Records and (smartly) created its own record label, New Machine Recordings. It also retained Lee to produce the new record. The result is a Silversun Pickups album that is more arena rock-ready than ever, and on that front, it picks up where the heavily layered production of Swoon left off.
Single “Nightlight” amplifies this notion, with the loud, reverb-soaked vocal refrains of “We want it!” ready for fans to shout along to at upcoming concerts. There’s also themes pretty fitting for this time of year (Halloween) as well: “Putting more makeup on the masks that we wear/Turning our nightlights on in the daytime to scare.” As a bonus, this fine track was turned into a captivating video by longtime director Mark Pellington (who you may remember also directed Pearl Jam’s unforgettable “Jeremy” video in the early ’90s).
Among the nine other tunes, the ones that stick out the most are those that mix the band’s trademark atmospheric guitars and electronics with pop hooks. That includes “Pins and Needles” and closing number “The Wild Kind.” The latter track, along with the last half of “Tapedeck,” has the big, explosive feel of Muse. Hence, more proof that Silversun Pickups are primed for stadium-sized rock venues. The group has toured with headliners like Muse before, of course. Now it seems the band is aiming to be a stadium headliner itself (instead of being a supporting act).
If you’re going to go big in sound and production to fill stadiums, the vocals have to carry as much weight as the music, if not more so – you can’t get there with subdued vocals amid shoegazing melodies as on early releases. Aubert has definitely grown as a vocalist over the last several releases, to the point where his pipes can soar and carry a whole song like “Friendly Fires.”
The only problem with this change of direction is that the overall sound of some of these new tunes comes off robotic and static (“Cradle (Better Nature)” and “Connection”). On the other hand, it is sort of refreshing to see keyboardist/electronics wizard Joe Lester featured a bit more (his vintage synths on “Friendly Fires” and vibraphonic touches that close out “Cradle” come to mind).
Where Monninger was seen as the “secret weapon” to the SSPU on its early releases, one could argue it was really Lester all along (or at least on these last two releases). That’s cool, but Monninger should still be featured more vocally, if not musically – her bass lines on “Panic Switch” are still the most memorable ones of SSPU’s career to this point.
What it all comes down to is that Better Nature could be better by the band’s own high standards that were set long ago with Pikul (2005 EP), Carnavas, and Swoon, but it’s still a step up from the darker Neck of the Woods.
To keep up with all things Silversun Pickups, visit their official website.
Key Tracks: “Pins and Needles,” “Friendly Fires,” “Nightlight,” “The Wild Kind”
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