Everything you need to know about Silversun Pickups can be discerned from the opening track, “Skin Graph.” You’ve got your clever turns of phrase (the title); a slow and tense build that gives way to dystopian air raid sirens; out-of-the-box lyrics (“Your skin is alive/And it’s leaving”); tense vocals that slur and sneer at the same time; and altogether, a really fun sense of menace.
That’s my number one adjective to describe Silversun Pickups to anyone who’s uninitiated: menace. The kind threatening to bubble up to the surface at any time. The kind that evokes rusty knives and leather motorcycle jackets. The kind that sounds like “Blade Runner” looks. And in what is the key to the band’s dichotomous success, they also make music that sounds perfect for summer.
I do not know how or why these two attributes mesh, but rusty knives and swimming pools make for cozy bedfellows.
In the follow-up to 2009’s pretty-much-perfect “Swoon,” Silversun Pickups have come out with all hands on deck for “Neck of the Woods.” It maintains seamless continuity with their previous work, yet still has enough new ideas to stay exciting. The band’s skill at plying such a moody sound without falling into boredom deserves a standing ovation and a pile of incinerated Bright Eyes albums.
The previously mentioned “Skin Graph” is certainly a standout, as is “Make Believe,” with its frantic-yet-melodic guitar solo. “Make Believe” captures the band’s deft ability at crafting tension, with an unresolving chorus ending on an cliffhanger, tricking listeners into preparing for a soaring belt that doesn’t come — until it does. “But I might have lost my mind,” indeed.
Lead single Bloody Mary requires two ears and an heart capable of love to appreciate it. The hook is absolutely undeniable. The lyrics are dense and impenetrable, but for a song that invokes the name of a mythical she-demon, that seems appropriate. The whole affair conjures the feel of a nightmare: “We’ll spoil good nights/Replacing lullabies.” Sadly, the song only says “Bloody Mary” four times. Seems like a wasted opportunity.
“Neck of the Woods” is certainly a dark album, with few sunny spots like “Substitution” or “Lazy Eye” to brighten the room. But it’s a fiercely consistent work, and it certainly doesn’t suffer for that. “The Pit” has Depeche Mode written all over it (which seems to be a thing nowadays). “Mean Spirits” is a jagged rocker, while “Simmer” lives up to its name with slavish literalism. Its compelling, guitar-driven rhythm never explodes, in another case of beautiful tension. If you are prone to fits of anxiety, “Neck of the Woods” will probably cause a full mental break.
Brian Aubert’s signature “Wait, is that a girl singing?” vocals are just as powerful as ever on “Neck of the Woods,” and the best part is knowing that he really sounds like that live. Every member of the group shines on this album, and that’s a rare treat. Nikki Monninger’s bass lines are probably the element most responsible for the air of danger, and drummer Christopher Guanlao gets the chance to go nuts more than once. Silversun Pickups could easily be a hard rock group if they wanted to, but they manage to keep that razor-blade flavor infused into their mainstream-friendly alt-rock.
If “Neck of the Woods” is any indication, Silversun Pickups have reached a point where they could join the echelon of headliner bands. If drowsy old Radiohead can do it, a little summertime horror certainly can.
(1) “Skin Graph”
(2) “Make Believe”
(3) “Bloody Mary”