Thursday, January 26, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 12: Silversun Pickups

Just my favorite image under "how Prozac feels."
I should like the Silversun Pickups (or is it just Silversun Pickups? Going that way). But I do not like Silversun Pickups, at least not a lot.

With them, we get into what I think is a fairly small subset in my collection, bands I picked up through Rock Band. Yes, the video game. Rock Band 2, in fact, as I've just learned. Also, my actual history with this band? It goes back only a couple years.

Of course “Lazy Eye” was the song. Near as I can tell that’s their biggest hit. I liked playing “Lazy Eye” because it had a kind of tricky, yet accessible, rhythm that you can master in about 10 tries (again, on Rock Band, in medium, but, once you nail that, you’re good for the expert pattern too; but I digress…into something at least mildly embarrassing. Look, even little doses of dopamine feel good. And, for what it’s worth, I think 10 tries to success for the average person makes for a good general ratio – certainly in video games, but maybe even in life. I haven’t really penciled that out, so, just a thought, but, yes, I think the bosses should get progressively harder in a certain kind of video game so that the last one almost brings the gamer to tears before he beats him/her/it/the life force; life, maybe less so; hard enough as is; but I digress; clearly).

Back to “Lazy Eye,” that came off of Carnavas, the band’s second album-esque offering. In the context of the band’s oeuvre, Carnavas (2006) all but tripped on the heels of the band’s album-esque debut, Pikul (2005), suggesting that the latter caught enough fire to make sense of pushing the rest of what the band carried in its back pocket out the door when people would notice. That could be why “Lazy Eye” gives the listener such a clear sense of what to expect from Silversun Pickups, and that holds at least through Swoon: a lot of strumming, a lot of it over a “wall of sound” throb, and that weird kind of distortion that doesn’t quite sound distorted. And the lead singer’s voice and style of singing. Which is fine. Just. Fine. At any rate, I generally like all those things, and I'm rarely all that particular on voices. So, why doesn't this band land for me?

Accusations of too many songs sounding the same attaches to more bands than deserve it. It doesn’t fit to Silversun Pickups, but that could be a fluke of 10+ years in the music game. To give some examples, Better Nature, the band’s latest, sounds like another band entirely from Pikul or Carnavas, certainly (if only within the frame of the actual band, e.g., Silversun Pickups; because, totally the same band). In fact, while dipping into Silversun Pickups “middle passage” (e.g., Neck of the Woods), and that because Spotify tops every band’s list with their biggest hits, I came across “The Pit,” a song with a sound distinct enough to go into my notes as “so FUCKING MODE.” (Here, “MODE” means Depeche Mode. Just listen…you hear it…right?).

Within albums, though – again, say Carnavas, Pikul, or even Better Nature – it’s really too easy to lose track of where one song ends, and the next begins, because, between too many textural similarities, the same kinds of musical progressions, and those…vocals, one track bleeds into the next. As an act, Silversun Pickups operates within an octave, and only within that octave. Maybe they broke out of that rut on Better Nature – after four listens, I’m open to that – but the way their songs rhyme a little too much makes Silversun Pickups feel better as an act to slip in and out of a (probably big) playlist, as opposed to a band to sit with for an entire album.

I’ve picked on the vocals enough by now to feel like I have to explain the point. It’s not that the lead singer’s voice is terrible or anything, so much as I think they under-utilize their female vocalist. Hold on (sigh!), yes, to name names (may as well start to look this shit up), I think the “lead singer” is Brian Aubert, and their “female vocalist,” Nikki Monninger. (And, because every lead needs a cast…wow, will tone down the snotty in future posts, the other members are Christopher Guanlao and Joe Lester*). My point is, when one hears a band that could stand a little variety in tone or approach, listening to a song like “Creation Lake” feels refreshing - even if “refreshing” doesn’t feel like the right word to use for that particular track.

Rather than keep drilling down on what doesn’t hit me right, I figure I should talk about the positives. First, Silversun Pickups sound, feel and look every inch a solid indie rock band. And, as noted above, they met the signal challenge any decent band has to: they evolved. By the time they reached Better Nature, it’s clear that the band wanted to diversify a bit, experiment with different sounds and production. You can tell you’re hearing something more separate and refined as early as the first track, “Cradle (Better Nature),” but the shift in tone cleans up all the way for “Circadian Rhythms.” For what it’s worth, “Nightlight” (ugh, go two minutes in on that one) sounded like the big single on this album for me (and Spotify bears that out on number of listens), but there’s something to “Latchkey Kids” that feels closer to where alternative rock/pop (hard to tell anymore) is moving these days. If you like that…OK. Just don’t call it “alternative.” And, honestly, I think "Latchkey Kids" is genuinely bad.

If you listen to Pikul, even the first (and, if I’m reading Spotify right, the biggest, if not career-making) track, “Kissing Families,” has all the markers of a Silversun Pickups track, only fuzzier, dirtier and, for me, better. I think that whole sound/process peaks out on “The Fuzz,” but stripped-down songs like “Booksmart Devil” feel a comfortable world away from the co-option that comes full circle on Swoon (if you can’t tell by now, no, Swoon is not a favorite).

As implied above, Carnavas feels like a bundle of the same…fundamentally solid ideas that Silversun Pickups had when…whoever the hell does this sort of thing, tested the market with Pikul. With enough success in their back pocket, they dropped, again, “Lazy Eye,” plus “Dream at Tempo 119,” (eeee....! that's the demo version! I like demos!) and, my personal favorite from everything I’ve heard from Silversun Picksups so far, “Melatonin.” For what it's worth, that track takes at least one thing I keep wanting the band to lean into - Monninger's vocals - while also doing more with melody. It lends the song something lighter. And here's why that matters.

All the above are songs that stood out for me, good or ill, in this band’s body of work. As for the rest, and in spite of temptation, why pick one song of all the ones that sound too similar to me to dissect, open up, and shit on its innards? My issues with this band are pretty general – i.e., their emotional affect (flat) seeps into their sound, which, per their Wikipedia page (again), “often encompass[es] multiple overdubs of distorted guitars,” creates a sort of “under-drone” that swallows whatever dynamism they attempt to inject into their songs. This habit of hamstringing cuts in as early as the second track on their first EP, “Comeback Kid” (shit, named a name), but that droning undertone this band creates for its songs needs a sort of “escape velocity” to let all those big, power-chord explosions create the bigger/multi-faceted “feelings” that I’m pretty sure the band wants people to feel. In other words, all that background noise sort of flattens out the sound to the point where the listener doesn’t feel much. To the point of losing interest in the sound.

And that’s where I land in the final analysis. Most of the musical acts that I like fire some clear, strong/vivid emotion in me. Silversun Pickups feel like what I imagine Prozac feels like – just…even (and less than what I want). Small surprise, then, that what I like best on Better Nature are the elements that let me actually hear all the instruments and sounds the band put into the song. I mean, what’s the point in washing out the sound? Unless the point is washing out the sound. But…why?

I have one last complaint, and it’s something I only bring up because it plays a big role in my musical taste as a whole. I spent a couple hours last night listening to Silversun Pickups songs while staring at the lyrics on my computer screen. What I learned from the process tracks something I read in Song Machine (again, incredible goddamn book), where the producers of pop’s biggest acts compose lyrics based mostly on the sound and metric qualities of the words, as opposed to the content of the words – i.e., the sound of the word comes before its meaning. Based on all the songs I reviewed, Silversun Pickups music is lousy with this; they even stick to the same script when getting the lyrics they (probably) want means stuffing too many syllables into one beat. I mean, serve the sound or serve the lyrics...

I don’t place a hard judgment on that approach so much as I say I’ve got a (STRONG) preference for songs that tell a story, or say something, for lack of a better word, naked and, ideally, universal (also, I think both those words, “naked” and “universal” go hand in hand). I listened to a lot of Silversun Pickups songs, my favorites especially, looking to connect to the band through its lyrics. While I can’t quite say I came up empty, I can say that, most of what I heard and read addressed an angst that was vague to the point of meaninglessness. Call it Hallmark Angst. And I think the half-shapeless spirit of that idea is why I can’t quite connect to Silversun Pickups.

Whoof….and I thought the Talib Kweli review had sharp elbows…

* Picking up on that asterisk way up there, I haven’t named band members through this project because, again, it was all about the music (man!). Also, this was never intended as an encyclopedic project, so that stuff didn’t seem relevant. Still, it seems remiss now, so I’ll be adding some or all of it (e.g., not for Hawkwind) in the future.

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