The Silversun Pickups’s sound—walls of roaring, distorted guitars that alternate with delicate but no-less-baroque edifices—certainly apes that of the Smashing Pumpkins, but it’s not like Billy Corgan’s crew was the first or last guitar-driven rock band to mine that territory. But the Pumpkins, by fusing the guitar innovations of their art-rock predecessors to stadium rock-pomp, made the first and best case for shoegaze and metal as viable, even commercially accessible, companions. On Swoon, the Pickups push densely atmospheric guitar rock, but with an L.A. sheen that yens for the days when grunge and alt-rock ruled radio.
Too bad, then, that the Pickups are less like the great, lost guitar gods of the early-‘90s rock renaissance and more like the grunge imitators who nailed the modern rock charts with a one-off single before fading into sales-bin obscurity. In the style of those alt-rock also-rans, the Pickups have released an album with only two or three tracks to justify its existence. The churning guitars come in layers, but they lack texture or dynamism. The band’s two guitarists drone over one another, but they never approach the druggy melodicism of vintage My Bloody Valentine, or nail the jet-plane-takeoff awe of prime Sonic Youth, and the tunes turn out to be pretty faceless.
The best exemplars of this style have always used their sonic density to explore depth, shading, and intricacy, but Swoon is an album of surfaces. Worse still, the average song stretches out to five minutes, the dearth of ideas embarrassingly evident by the third or fourth cycle through a verse that’s only mildly interesting the first time around. Brian Aulbert’s unaccomplished vocals are another liability. His androgynous tenor sounds consistently strained, and though he clearly wants to write anthems, he lacks the range to deliver a compelling hook.
Occasionally, bassist Nikki Monninger and drummer Chris Guanlao swing in to save the album from lurching to its doom, and their heroic efforts should not go unnoticed. “Sort Of” rocks a throbbing, thundering bassline, while Guanlao’s lithe drumming seems to taunt the grandiose guitar riffs. On “Panic Switch,” the pair goes into open revolt, bringing some much needed swagger to a record that is, up to that point, content with downcast brooding. That track also yields the album’s most captivating guitar stab: Aulbert goes apoplectic on his fretboard at around the four-minute mark, squeezing out a polyphonic rush that makes every effects pedal earn its keep. He gets another, refreshingly understated shot at the big leagues on “Substitution,” whose central riff sounds lifted from a lost Dinosaur Jr. track. If you don’t want that one ruined, do what you can to avoid listening to the lyrics (Aulbert portends “the great downfall” when “reactions turn into hurricanes”). Like too many of his ‘90s alt-rock idols, Aulbert aims for love-lorn angst, but ends up with homeroom poetry.
Such is the fate of Swoon. It’s best passages tend to last under a minute, waiting to be excavated from their droning, overlong surroundings. Even its best tracks tempt one’s finger toward the skip button, and the truly aimless fair that makes up the majority of the record will try the patience of even those listeners sympathetic to the band’s sound. Maybe my tastes just aren’t subtle enough for tracks like “It’s Nice to Know You Work Alone” or “Surrounded,” but after five minutes of stormy buildup, I’m ready for the flood. The Silversun Pickups show here that they’ve got a competent grasp of the amp-frying guitar soundscape, but someone needs to teach them how to write a decent rock song.