The members of Silversun Pickups are ’90s revivalists, and all that alt-rock love has paid off. By combining Smashing Pumpkins’ grandiosity with My Bloody Valentine’s haze, SSPU has steadily risen through the indie ranks. Which is why the band’s decision to go the “difficult third album” route with Neck of the Woods might make or break the group. As you’ve probably deduced from the above score, I’m not feeling too good on those odds.
The Pickups broke through on the strength of the single “Lazy Eye,” but it helped that the band’s debut full-length, Carnavas, was packed with songs that could have easily been that hit. Swoon was a stylistic victory lap; bigger and louder and almost as fun. Neck goes the opposite route. It’s cleaner, more electronic, more droning, more percussion-driven… and still just a tad disappointing.
Shaking up their sound was definitely the right idea, as I’m not sure who many more times the Pickups could’ve gotten away with rewriting Carnavas. The problem is that the band can’t quite figure out how to grow from there. SSPU has always operated within a clearly defined style. By downplaying guitars, shoegaze and pop hooks--things they’re good at--the members essentially threw out what fans liked and failed to rotate in anything worthwhile. Neck is great in theory (like communism!), but all those meandering passages and hookless choruses kind of pile up after a while.
Worse, they highlight the band’s other deficiencies. As much as I love their first two records, even I have to admit that the Pickups’ lyrics have never exactly been revelatory. While frontman Brian Aubert gets in a couple good lines here and there (The way he sings “All I think about is why / The skin I’m in feels ordinary,” from “Skin Graph,” is spine-tingling), the bulk of his lyrics are forgettable at best, embarrassing at worst. I love the hook to “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings),” but got-damn is that chorus dumb.
That’s not to say the record is lacking in highlights. I’m not sure how this material will work in the band’s live set, but tracks like “Bloody Mary,” “The Pit” and opener “Skin Graph” are catchy, slightly techno-tinged ditties. Oddly enough, the band sounds better the more it approaches Depeche Mode’s synth-pop stylings. A couple of tracks honor the band’s old sound (“Skin Graph,” “Mean Spirits”), but generally speaking, the rest of the material is too midtempo and defanged to satisfy anyone.
Still, it’s cool in a way that the band took a chance here. It didn’t exactly pay off, but that’s what difficult third albums sometimes do. I just hope Silversun Pickups don’t end up like another ’90s shoegaze band, Ride: Two great albums, followed by a string of disappointments.