Album: Silversun Pickups, "Neck of the Woods" (Dangerbird)
There's a house on the cover of Silversun Pickups' "Neck of the Woods" that could be anywhere for all of its androgynous, indeterminate Americana. The lights are on behind muted shades, the paint is chipping. It's dusk, or early morning. It could be anywhere. You get closer and suddenly it seems very obvious: something terrible is happening inside.
"Little lights are overexposing the highlight," sings Brian Aubert in that weird, compelling voice of his behind a building beat that can best be described as an aggravated shuffle.
"Marks on the floor, when aligned right, lead to a place that seemed somewhat exposed until now." This is our neck of the woods, they're saying. Waving hello from the porch of their post-apocalyptic slasher house in the suburbs. He spends the middle two minutes of the song moaning to drive the point home.
It's a creepy sound, but a new sound. We've moved on from the leaden Black Rebel-matic pseudo-psychedelia into turf that feels new and unexplored. Producer Jacknife Lee was called on to add a fresh coat of paint to the band's body, and he imparts a candy apple red post-grunge glow to the entire album, which feels perpetually one minute and one second away from some kind of only-MacGuyver-can-save-us-now nuclear bungle. Songs like "Make Believe" churn and burble like the disembodied head of R.E.M. cut from its own and placed inside a shiny robot body; similarly, there are physical allusions to Smashing Pumpkins left all over the place, so much so that one expects Aubert to start singing about no one understanding his pain any minute now.
He never does, at least not obviously -- Aubert is less obvious about his wants than Corgan, and more likely to explore them through simile rather than high school poetry -- but the sense of uneasy tripwire tension that liberally peppers the Pumpkins' best work is reflected in what this newer band is attempting here. "Bloody Mary" combines winning concert hall theatrics with appealing dancehall techno phasers. They're trying to get us dancing in the aisles to a song with lyrics that go bump in the night: "If we stay long enough, we can play with Bloody Mary," Aubert sings. "She'll chase us through the dark, activate our nerve endings." It's like being chased through a dungeon with an axe by someone very attractive.
The songs here represent a new sort of density compared the band's previous pair of albums. There is less fuzz guitar and more pop sheen, but unlike the former rock-and-roll band Kings of Leon, nothing of substance was sacrificed to turn the Pickups arena-friendly. "Mean Spirits" starts out loud and nasty and sort of roiling, like an angry ocean, then slow-dissolves into a tuneful romp, the Pumpkins influence in full flower. But more than doing shtick from one specific band, they seem to be channelling an entire previous era's way of making music, the guitar solos specifically here and exactly this long, and the choruses timed to some sort of internal metric. You can't see it, you can't hear it, but you know it's there, like Peter Falk's former angel brethren in "Wings of Desire."
Then there's "The Pit," which wavers on the thin line between motorik-style disco and disco-style motorik, with a weird contemporary overlay that recalls everything from Usher to the last Jane's Addiction album. "Dots and Dashes," meanwhile, conveys a sort of weird, futuristic rockabilly through its Peter-Gunn-meets-Muse motif.
"Gun-Shy Sunshine" is a showstopper, a sinuous, seductive piece that evokes (unsurprisingly, given its production assistance) a more sprightly, flexible U2 from an earlier eon. "Pretend to care to remember," Aubert pleads.
Closer "Out of Breath" lives slightly up to its title, starting out like a nursery rhyme and ending like a curse, but the punchy dynamics of the song feel a bit like over-enthusiastic pastiche, especially when the Grand Funk Railroad-style cascading guitar runs come in toward the end of the tune.
But no matter. This weird house on the end of the block is worth exploring. Bring a flashlight and a friend.