Review Summary: The Silversun Pickups follow their solid debut album Carnavas with a slightly lesser effort in Swoon. For fans of the band, you'll be pleased, while the rest will be wondering why the L.A. foursome is drawing so much hype. (5.5/10)
Los Angeles-based Silversun Pickups received a great deal attention for their solid if uninspired debut Carnavas, drawing a litany of comparisons to 90’s alt rock bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Ride and, most of all, the Smashing Pumpkins. With their generally hazy, moody sound, use of super-fuzzed heavy guitar riffage, inclusion of a crush-worthy female bassist (Nikki Monniger) and lead singer Brian Aubert’s half-nasal, half-whisper, emo-boy voice recalling the almost intolerable nasal whine of Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan, its easy to see why the L.A. quartet were suddenly being hailed as the new leaders of the “90’s rock revival”. Personally, I never understood why the large majority of music critics decided to hold this comparison against the band--why shouldn’t people get hyped over a band that has the potential to craft a record as brilliant as Siamese Dream? The poor guys (and girl) got the short end of the stick most of the time, however, being coined as “Smashing Pumpkins rip-offs” rather than “The next Smashing Pumpkins”.
With their second effort, Swoon, the band opts not to differ greatly from the style that got them so much buzz in the first place, instead attempting only to tinker with their general formula. The result is a rather safe album, which is somewhat of a disappointment, but an understandable one nonetheless. For the most part, not much has changed for the Pickups since Carnavas: the guitars are still fuzzed out, shoegaze-y and are often worked out as one of the main focuses of the song most of the time; the lyrics give off a generally depressed mood, even if they are often incomprehensible and/or nonsensical; songs tend to drag on a little longer than they should. Aubert’s whispery rasp will still grate anyone who wasn’t a fan of it on their debut, perhaps even more so, as it tends to be even more of a focal point on every track than it was on Carnavas. In fact, that would be a general trend for this album--if you were fan of the Pickups before this album, you’ll most likely be calling this an early contender for album of the year; if not, you’ll still not understand how anyone could think these guys can be in the same breath as Corgan and the boys (and girl).
There are a number of expected upgrades that come with any band’s second album littered throughout Swoon: note the new string section featured on tracks such as “The Royal We” and “Catch and Release”, or the attempt at adding an equal amount of “soft” songs to go with their usual “heavy” ones. The attempt at improved dynamics is a general failure, as when the listener expects songs like album opener “There’s No Secrets This Year” to really blast off, it doesn’t, only feeling as if the volume was just turned up a little bit rather than the band really kicking up the energy level. The attempt at mixing softer songs like “Growing Old is Getting Old” and “Draining” with heavier stuff like lead single and album highpoint “Panic Switch” also doesn’t go as planned; normally what happens is all the energy that is created by songs like “Panic Switch” and “It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone” is drained and wasted by the less-than-stellar, forgettable softer attempts.
The songs generally have a more modern alt-rock feel rather the “half-indie, half-alt. rock” vibe given off by Carnavas. “Substitution” could be a high-end Third Eye Blind song if it wasn’t for Aubert’s voice whining over its easy-going main riff. Swoon is by no means the Silversun Pickups “selling out”, but the group definitely understands that they have an opportunity to really “make it big” with this album, so one finds them trying to appease to their core audience yet still create more accessible songs than say, “Future Foe Scenarios”, that most modern rock fans can connect with.
The big problem to found on Swoon though is that most of its songs are largely forgettable; there is a serious dearth of memorable moments in comparison to Carnavas. Don’t get me wrong, there are some high-points: when Aubert wails “Misery inspires” as the string section reaches its crescendo at the same time as the soaring guitars on “The Royal We” it is genuinely exciting and captivating. “Panic Switch” is filled with some of those awesome guitar freakouts from songs like “Lazy Eye” on Carnavas, and is one of the few songs to actually succeed at creating a dynamic between tension-building verses and loud, crashing choruses. But songs like “Draining”, “Sort Of”, “Growing Old is Getting Old”, and “Surrounded” are essentially devoid of any memorable riffs, hooks, and the like, so you’ll be forgetting them as quickly as you heard them. Since this is a band that is centered much more around riffage and melodies rather than creating any discernible atmosphere, this is rather disappointing. The record has no real must-hear song on it such as “Well Thought Out Twinkles” or “Rusted Wheel”; “Panic Switch” is good, but it would probably be somewhere between “Melatonin” and “Little Lover’s So Polite” on the list of best Carnavas songs had it been on that record.
Swoon is in a bit of an unfair spot as the traditional “difficult second album” for an up-and-coming band, which is especially so for a band that is expected to deliver the fix for the many fans who desperately crave the 90’s alt-rock days of yore. It doesn’t exactly pull a Strokes and replicate its predecessor, but Swoon will have people recalling Carnavas more than any other album, including Siamese Dream. “I know you’ve heard it all before”, Aubert sings on “Substitution”, and he’s absolutely right. For fans of the Pickups, go ahead and buy your new favorite album. For everyone else, you’re better off listening to “Geek U.S.A.” or “Quiet” a few more times.