California Literary Review

When You See Sparks

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Album review: Silversun Pickups’ Neck of the Woods

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May 29th, 2012 at 3:39 pm

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Silversun Pickups -Neck Of The Woods

Artist: Silversun Pickups
Album: Neck of the Woods
Label: Dangerbird Records
Format: Physical and download LP

CLR Rating: ★★★★½

Silversun Pickups sit within a genre that crosses one of my favourite transatlantic semantic divides (like pants/trousers or cars/trucks) -in the US they’re dreampop, in the UK shoegaze. This is great because both portmanteaus are gorgeously evocative; maybe I’ve spent too much time staring at my bedroom ceiling over the years but it’s hard to hear the word ‘shoegaze’ without immediately thinking of that slant of sunlight through dust onto your feet atop a duvet. Dreampop, too, is all light shapes on dark floors and the Losing My Religion video.

Silversun Pickups’ name itself is evocative, dry air and lazy afternoons and both their previous albums have been instantly recognisable by abstracted, murky swirls and lights on the covers. Their understanding of the soundscape immersion that this kind of music needs to achieve seemed exceptional, if rather directly related to that of the Smashing Pumpkins.

Neck Of The Woods, though, has as its cover art a stark, twilit suburban house, replete with picket fence. The inside is lit blankly and the observer is outside the fence- a far, surgical cry from the almost tactile swirls of Carnavas or the Rorschach splodges of Swoon. Their third album is an evocation of homesickness-at-home, a sense of alienation in your home town, where that sunbeam is no longer evocative but dispossessing, ghostly; an album about horror stories in midwestern towns and that creeping sense of dread in the mirror.

The journey from first album Carnavas to this point has been substantially more circular than you might think, from the apparent aesthetic dissonance. Lead single of that era and still-biggest hit Lazy Eye is the one that’s lingered on playlists and in memories but parts of the album were far more about a creeping discomfort with a certain skyline, an increasing sense of eeriness in your back yard-

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Here’s a slightly controversial thought: I don’t actually think the Silversun Pickups sound very much like the Smashing Pumpkins. I think they sound like they’ve been listening to the Smashing Pumpkins on repeat for about 72 hours before entering the studio but they don’t actually sound an enormous amount like them. Smashing Pumpkins always had a punkier, bassier noise to them. Take Bullet With The Butterfly Wings -a lot of that could be early Offspring and the grungier recording techniques of the 90s mean Corgan’s vocal disappears into the fuzz of the guitars. The Silversun Pickups, meanwhile, are more than just a historical re-enactment society; Corgan and Co were self-absorbed and snotty extroverts but their fanbase tended towards the anxiously speculative introverts, poring over the lyrics for all sorts of meanings I’m pretty sure were ascribed by the band at a later date.

Consequently, what comes out in the Silversun Pickups is a compulsion to solve puzzles; hearing and falling in love with a band, they set out to try to find the spell. The Smashing Pumpkins themselves were not the sort of people who listened to Melon Collie on repeat while reading Philip K Dick novels, not taking any drugs and staring at their own socked feet on the end of their bed. Silversun Pickups are.

The creeping, evocative dread of Carnavas was that bottom-of-your-stomach anxiety that graduated to an empty feeling after anger on Swoon, which is their love album or at least, their sex album.

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Thing is, though, it’s not quite… well, ‘nice sex’ is a bit of an odd phrase. It’s not Taylor Swift, let us say- the eponymous swoon of “Catch & Release”‘s chorus has the lie put to it by the odd can’t believe that the lure was enough line, wolf-hungry and at the end, a machine blown apart in the climax. The heavenly, evocative swirls cast highlights over exactly the sort of self-hate that leads to listening to shoegaze for hours and hours and hours and then crying until you vomit.

Getting back to Neck Of The Woods, its horror is all displacement. Bloody Mary, patron ghost of children’s sleepovers, makes a visitation on the third track-

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If we grew up together/You would find it’s not the same/I want to jump inside that picture/Show you what you gained -despite the reference to invoking Bloody Mary in the chorus (the legend varies but supposedly saying her name three times in a mirror will evoke a terrible, murderous spirit) this is a song about losing touch with childhood friends, deceased or no longer at the last address. The ghost isn’t the frightening thing, it’s the haunting.

I’m generally slightly suspicious of the concept of hauntology in music but the spectre of shoegaze hangs so heavily across the Silversun Pickups, each album a ouija board of invocation to more thoughtful ghosts than they’re calling up and Aubert’s vocal is so ghostly in any case. Not faint or whispy, insistent and occasionally shrieking. In the mid-album territory, where you might assume the pace would drop, electro-driven “Simmer” twitches with nervous tension and honeyed vocals are backed by gentle ‘oo-ooo-oohs’ from a forgotten Beach Boys song, notched up to eeriness by the boiling pot of the riff-

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Straight after that, the album’s big pop song- in the spirit of “Lazy Eye,” “The Pit” is about, err, being buried alive and then possibly resurrected and subjected to some slightly dubiously hygienic surgery with a truly marvellous middle eight. Except of course it’s about drowning in a small town and loneliness, more than any true horror. Which is arguably what all horror is about anyway.

The Silversun Pickups are an odd band, in a lot of ways- although dogged by the similarities between themselves and earlier shoegaze in a way similar to the way the Organ’s brief career was swallowed by similarities to the Smiths, they endure and sell in a way that should, by the third LP, have made their career their own. It’s impossible to talk about them without referencing back, though- even playing some to my student as a test just led to her asking if it was from the 90s.

There would be no point questioning their skills in evocation. They excel at painting soundscapes so confidently powerful they lead to scribbled notes like ‘has anything else sounded quite so exactly like this type of sky?’ by a frazzled reviewer panickedly hammering words into a keyboard before a thunderstorm. But like a ouija board, something else has to come through and the lingering spirit of tape decks and teenage emotion lurks somewhere in the background of every picture, thrown up like light orbs as soon as sentences are put together about them.

Neck Of the Woods isn’t likely to change that- it’s a rockier album than Swoon but by a smaller margin than some estimates; it’s a more declaredly creepy album than Carnavas but again only by millimetres. Some parts, like Busy Bees seem to distil something perfectly, a concentrated drop of just-beyond-the-window and distractive tension but it feels almost perverse to congratulate an album for being so comfortably immersive as to nearly induce catatonia.

This is a beautiful, deeply felt and thought album; it crawls in its own skin and fits comfortably to the listener’s, a rediscovered mixtape in your old bedroom that you can’t remember the names of the tracks on but know all the words. Its flaws lie where they try to push the horror concept beyond a creeping sense of dread and loss and cored-out fear and boldness and throw in direct references to the grotesque, although that’s also where the great pop moments of the album lie.

There probably isn’t a much greater achievement for an album than to leave the listener disjointed by it for days after, though and on that metric, this is one of the best of the year so far.

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