Over the years that Silversun Pickups have been recording music, they’ve been almost constantly compared to 90’s-era shoegaze, punk rock and psychedelic rock bands — think Smashing Pumpkins or My Bloody Valentine.
Their most recent release, Neck of the Woods, seems to actually try to embrace that association with the past. The resulting blend of ambience with grungy guitar hooks, ethereal vocals and thrumming bass is an homage to a time when rock was constantly being redefined. In doing so, Silversun Pickups have created one of the best albums of the year.
Made up of vocalist and guitarist Brian Aubert, bassist Nikki Monniger, drummer Chris Guanlao, and keyboardist Joe Lester, Silversun Pickups have received a great deal of critical acclaim in recent years for their previous album, Swoon, which clinched them a 2010 Grammy nomination. Neck of the Woods is their third album.
The opening track, “Skin Graph,” starts out the album with a thrilling intro, beginning with a dreamy guitar buildup punctuated by a cool, clean drum beat and accentuated by Brian Aubert’s unique, whispery vocals. The style is typical of the Pickups, although the song itself sounds almost like it could have been a collaboration between the Chemical Brothers and Billy Corgan.
A nod to shoegaze fans can be found in “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings),” which sounds like a continuation of the band’s fixation with the rough, instrument-oriented shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine.
Throughout both songs, however, the Pickups manage to add their own individual element to the music; an element that, unfortunately, makes a very limited appearance on later songs in the album.
An example of overstated homage is present in the very next song, “Busy Bees.” Although it is by no means unoriginal, the song is extremely reminiscent of Fugazi’s post-punk, although given a studio polish. Overall, “Busy Bees” doesn’t necessarily sound like it truly belongs to the Pickups; when listening, one gets the detached sense that comes with a cover rather than an original.
However, the following track “Mean Spirits” more than makes up for that lack of investment. It is one of the most revivalist songs on the entire album, and at the same time is nothing but classic Pickups.
The sound is less shoegaze and more straightforward rock, although the gauzy guitar is as present as ever. Here, though, it sounds warmer and more genuine, and lacks the sharp, almost mathematical feel of earlier Pickups albums.
The album ends with a hazy blend of the familiar and unfamiliar. The chorus and underlying guitar riff of the second-to-last track, “Gun-Shy Sunshine,” could almost have been lifted off of a Smashing Pumpkins album.
Through its sound, the song appears to be an open acknowledgement of the association between the two bands that critics always point out when examining the Pickups.
The final song, “Out of Breath,” is an easily overlooked gem, ending the album with a sound that ties the past with the present as it incorporates several different styles, both modern and vintage, at once. It summarizes the entire album beautifully, ending on an ambient note that serves as a full stop to the album’s beautifully-written foray into revivalism.
In an era where no real ground is being broken in the genre of rock, Neck of the Woods harkens back to a time where the definition of rock was constantly changing. In the process, the band have added their own modern spin to established sounds, although they don’t always manage to make the songs their own.
Overall, the album is a magnificent example of 90’s revivalism, and is a worthy homage to a quickly-disappearing era of music.