Sunday, June 28, 2009

Music Review: Silversun Pickups - Swoon

Please note that this review was initially posted on the website of Blogcritics Magazine 5/27/09

After touring their collective butts off for over three years behind debut EP Pikul (2005) and the ensuing debut record Carnavas (2006), Los Angeles foursome Silversun Pickups found themselves being rewarded with critical praise, a couple of hit singles and an expanding fan base drawn to its rocking yet atmospheric dream pop sound.

For a band with only a couple of EPs and records out, Silversun Pickups have already mastered the art of studio recording and production, with the help of Dave Cooley and mixer Tony Hoffer. Their Carnavas songs had a healthy amount of depth and repeat-worthy material (“Rusted Wheel,” “Three Seed,” and “Lazy Eye” being among them). The same team of musicians and producers helmed its follow-up Swoon (Dangerbird Records). Although there is arguably more layers of sound on the new album, the difference between it and the first record is that this new effort is just a few truly captivating songs short of being a truly great record.

Before the review itself goes any further, setting the record straight is in order here. SSPU may use Siamese Dream-like levels of distortion and fuzz on their records, but comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins are overstated and in fact, should be minimal. Bandleader Brian Aubert is flattered by the comparison but has told the media over the last couple of years (myself included) he never really understood it and didn’t listen to early Pumpkins material until well after Carnavas garnered critical praise and was made aware of such a comparison.

The band is instead more influenced by the master of over-distorted guitars Kevin Shields/My Bloody Valentine, along with Secret Machines and Sonic Youth. FYI, one of the main reasons Siamese Dream has the overloaded guitar sound it has is because the Pumpkins dug MBV and its mixer Alan Moulder so much they hired him to mix the now classic alternative rock record.

Thus, anyone who still insists SSPU are or were influenced by the Pumpkins frankly has no idea what they are talking about. Carnavas never truly did sound like Siamese Dream. It just so happens that this group has brief similarities to the Windy City alt-rock legends here and there – “Lazy Eye” at times perhaps has a tiny weenie bit of “Quiet” in it.

Likewise, Silversun Pickups’ new album has maybe just one Pumpkins-esque song as well, the opener “There’s No Secrets This Year,” which has chord progressions mid-song that sound like a sped-up version of the early Billy Corgan/James Iha b-side "Plume." Other than that, it’s hard to pick up other obvious influences on the record, though thick, Kevin Shields-type guitars can still be heard at times, as on album closer "Surrounded (Or Spiraling)".

Swoon’s best moments are when it gets a little epic, a little sassy, or aggressively heavy. Where “Draining” exemplifies the group’s newfound grand ambition, with its delicate and dark guitars that contrast with bright strings, “It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone” represents SSPU’s sexy side (particularly when bassist Nikki Monninger takes the mic). The betrayal-themed “There’s No Secrets This Year,” fuzzed-up loud rocker “Panic Switch,” and the crunchiest parts of “Substitution” represent the best of its heavy material. Speaking of “Substitution,” one of the many tracks that alternate between the light and the heavy, its lighter parts lead you to believe this could be seen as the peppy sequel to Carnavas track “Three Seed.”

Overall, there are no turn-offs or unlistenable tracks on Swoon, just a few songs that test your patience as you wait for the big, loud and fuzzy payoff. The fearless “Growing Old Is Getting Old,” which sees Aubert singing with a pre-pubescent-sounding tenor, is one such track.

All of the subtle and sonic elements of Carnavas are still present here (courtesy of keyboardist Joe Lester). What there is less of on this album is the shoegaze-like material of its earlier work. It instead has a mix of soft and loud guitars with lots of strings weaving above and below them – at least half of Swoon’s ten tracks contain some level of strings. Still, the music here is quite dramatic and dynamic, just not quite as dark as in the past.

Swoon is not exactly SSPU’s answer to The Verve’s Urban Hymns but the heavy amount of strings on this album makes you wonder what direction SSPU is going in. It’s their own sound for sure (despite the influences you may hear), one which could be categorized as soft-to-loud ‘n’ heavy chamber or dream pop. Whatever you want to call it, Swoon is a fine follow-up to Carnavas and the band itself is still exciting to follow. [4 stars]

Key tracks: “There’s No Secrets This Year,” “Substitution,” “Sort Of,” “Panic Switch,” “It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone.”

For tour and other Silversun Pickups info, click here.

Music Review: Royksopp - Junior

Note: Yeah, I've been neglecting my blog while attending to other duties. Unfortunately, it happens. But now, here's my Royksopp review originally published in Blogcritics Magazine 5/20/09

It is hard to believe four years have passed since Royksopp dropped their second LP The Understanding to the masses and that it’s been eight years since the native Norwegians graced the world stage with the magnificent debut record Melody A.M..

For its third release (with a fourth planned for later this year), Royksopp’s Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland came up with some instrumental gems, but opted to make a mainly vocal-based record, with their own pipes alongside guests including long-time collaborator Anneli Drecker (on "Vision One"), rising young Norway pop star Lykke Li (“Miss It So Much”), Robyn and others.

Cutting right to the chase, Junior is simply the most consistent and playful album Royksopp has recorded yet. Let me count the ways.

The clap-happy first single and mind-trip of a video “Happy Up Here” is chock full of light-hearted electronics and vocals, and also features a Parliament sample. Thus, it’s a proper introduction to a record full of coolness.

The hot dance track “The Girl And The Robot” sounds like a New Order “Blue Monday” remix-meets-Madonna’s “Hung Up.” It also sees the recently resurrected Swedish pop star Robyn making a cameo and singing about loneliness and frustration about her man working like a robot. It’s a situation so bad she goes “mental” over it and later resorts to watching MTV, which does nothing for her: “Fell asleep again in front of MTV…No one’s singing songs for me”.

On “Vision One” (and to a lesser extent “Happy Up Here”), Royksopp prove they are on the cutting edge in synthesizer technology. The deep, expanding and contracting synth used here is more than rad cool. It’s bleepin’ awesome, especially when heard through high quality headphones or stereo system. The amount of well-produced and structured otherworldly soundscapes on this album is enough to make the likes of Daft Punk and Air jealous.

“This Must Be It,” featuring the passionate and breathy vocals of The Knife’s Karen Dreijer-Anderson and oceanic wave-like synths at its end, is arguably the most blissful house number Royksopp’s written to date.

“Silver Cruiser,” the most peaceful and trippy track and instrumental on the album sounds like electronic Radiohead if they were inspired by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

The rest of these tracks are enjoyable to listen to as well, though "True To Life" may test your patience, as it doesn't veer all that much from its initial melody and take off into flange-aided psychedelic territory until its last minute or so. And a corny lyric or two on “Tricky Tricky” may make you wince for a couple of seconds, but this slice of synth-heavy electronica is an otherwise effervescent rave-up.

In all, Junior not only keeps its streak of extraordinarily produced records alive, it bridges the divide between the lovable instrumental soundscapes of its first record and the more pop vocal-oriented material from its second, only with better results this time around. In other words, it’s a must-have for any serious Royksopp fan. [4 stars]

Key tracks: “The Girl And The Robot,” “Vision One,” “This Must Be It,” “Silver Cruiser”

Click here to watch Royksopp's "Happy Up Here" video.