Wednesday, June 12, 2019

album review: 'widow's weeds' by silversun pickups

So I've never reviewed a Silversun Pickups album before, mostly because there wasn't much demand for me to cover Better Nature four years ago, but I'll admit I had walked adjacent to the band before then - and yet the conversation around this band fascinates me as it exposes a certain divide between critics of certain ages, and also prompts a conversation that surely won't get that controversial, right?

Well anyway, let's go back to 2006 where Silversun Pickups have released Carnavas with the instant classic single 'Lazy Eye', promptly becoming the best incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins in the 2000s. And if you don't like that comparison, you've immediately exposed the controversy that's unfortunately surrounded this band for years, as with a nasal singer, aggressive loud-soft dynamics coasting on jangling guitar grooves, pretensions to larger sounds, and later in their career a slow pivot towards electronic music, it was an obvious parallel. Now let's put aside that the Smashing Pumpkins hadn't been tolerable since the end of the 90s and that given how the mainstream rock scene was only getting flashier before the aggro tones took over for the end of the decade, there was space for a band like Silversun Pickups... but they were an obvious retread to many critics and that was enough to ostracize them.

And this is where I have to highlight the generational divide, because I'm not going to ignore how much Silversun Pickups sounded like Smashing Pumpkins, but coming from someone who only went back to the Smashing Pumpkins and is lukewarm on the group at best - they're way more inconsistent than you remember and the egomaniacal preening of Billy Corgan hasn't really aged well - I had no problem with Silversun Pickups taking a similar sound in a slightly different direction. That's not saying the band doesn't have problems - the pop pivot hasn't been exactly smooth, the writing has been underwhelming, the band doesn't have the sheer nexus of creative genius that is Billy Corgan, nearly everything they write goes on too long, and I think they've consistently failed to realize their melodic hooks are their greatest strength. But without the foundational Gen X nostalgia for the Smashing Pumpkins, I can recognize where Silversun Pickups are different - less goth and prog, more scuzzy post-punk and shoegaze, with a shaggier approach to melody that has gradually put them in a different lane. Granted, I had no idea what I could get with this project, swapping out producer Jacknife Lee for rock megaproducer and former early Smashing Pumpkins producer Butch Vig, so what did we get out of Widow's Weeds?

Honestly, I feel cheated. I put together such a lengthy preamble with the expectation that Silversun Pickups would give me something to work with, and yet Widow's Weeds is depressingly banal, taking much of the band's meandering darkness and vacuum-sealing them inside conventional radio rock tedium. No joke, after the first few listens I wondered why the hell this wasn't getting an express trip to the Trailing Edge, but then I thought, 'you know, I've got a few days before I have to talk about Baroness and whatever Dave Fridmann's going to inflict upon them, might as well prime the pump here'. And I'll say this now: I'm not saying that this album would have been great with a different producer, but it absolutely has a hard ceiling with Butch Vig, who seems to have completely misunderstood what works for Silversun Pickups in service of delivering a lot of forgettable alt-rock mush.

And what I find exasperating is that the default criticism I've seen is that Silversun Pickups just delivered an album full of album filler, but the secret truth behind 'album filler' is that if the tunes can cultivate the atmosphere or fit within the lyrical arc, they might not have to be standout singles to have an important role in the album. And say what you will about how Silversun Pickups albums could drag or meander, there was a depth of tone and smolder that drew upon shoegaze and post-rock that might not have always been immediately gripping, but could still subtly suck you in regardless. And yet seemingly with Butch Vig onboard, that simmer or even sense of depth is utterly gone, and while some of that is to be expected with the tighter compositions, if you're looking for those jagged guitars to simmer or deliver a tremolo echo across the mix, or even production that can sound cavernous or haunted, nothing on Widow's Weeds comes close. Instead of any focus to blending and subtle emphasis, the pickups across the board, especially the acoustic strumming, have picked up an immediacy in their slightly compressed grind that shoves the lead melodies right to the front of the mix - along with garish arranged elements and strings that fit with nothing and only further clutter a mix that feels unnecessarily dense without good blending or atmosphere - along with the sort of upfront, underlayered vocal pickups that are about the last thing Brian Aubert's frail delivery needs! This isn't a Foo Fighters albums where the hooks are the most immediate focus or where the heavier tone needs to be rammed in our face, and Aubert is not a singer like Dave Grohn or Billy Corgan who can command the mix without simmer or some build-up of intensity. 

And I'm honestly a little at a loss how and why this approach was taken, because as much as I can rip on Butch Vig for ripping out all the subtlety, the Silversun Pickups were the band that were trying to write more immediate tunes, they did go along with this. Maybe they were sick of writing atmospheric brooding songs and wanted something more immediate and dark, but then why do all the guitars sound like downtuned post-grunge radio slurry with more texture than convincing impact? Why would you further emphasize the Smashing Pumpkins comparisons and then come up audibly short? Why is there nothing visceral or strange about the vocal delivery or grooves or percussion? Hell, given that it's popular now, why get rid of so much of the darker electronics when your glitchy dalliance into those tones actually showed some promise? And more to the point, if you're going to double down on hook-friendly mainstream sounds, where the hell are the hooks - if you're going to play that game, at least try to deliver there! I'm not saying that the pulsating low-end synth or firmer groove of 'Neon Wound' is great - my favourite song here is probably the Incubus-wannabe 'Bag Of Bones' and that's mostly for the bass interplay - but they're at least catchy, which is a similar light endorsement I'd throw for the Metric-esque groove on 'It Doesn't Matter Why'... but even on that song, I really can't stand how the strings are smashed in to carry the main melody, which is not the only time this happens either - it's worse on 'Freakazoid', 'Simpatico', the title track and especially 'Straw Man' with its synths and bad bass mixing. And that's not getting into the programmed groove that clashes really awkwardly with the grainy beatboxing and snap of 'Don't Know Yet', or how the closer 'We Are Chameleons' had some promise with the more aggressive groove but chooses to end with a jangling acoustic outro that's more flatly obtuse than potent.

And then there's the lyrics... and look, Silversun Pickups have sadly had a long reputation of having songs that feel underwritten, vaguely foreboding but rarely paying off the suspense the way they should, but I can't even say they get that right. More pronounced here is a feeling of inertia and stasis - they've somehow weathered a storm and are still here, digging in their roots and locking in, but what that storm was or where that real danger really lies are questions that remain unanswered and barely even implied. A lot of folks have drawn issue with how lines like 'it doesn't matter how we're known, we're just known', which almost seems to imply they're less interesting than they appear, but that's more framed at an audience unwilling to accept ambiguity and only when they admit that they don't know they can learn - but it's not like the band is throwing out the line to pull someone in either, which is all the more jarring when their production is as immediate as it's ever been! At least 'Neon Wound' implies temptation and 'Bag Of Bones' slides into a nihilistic 'hold me' moment, but throughout the back half of the album we get numerous references to dealing with loss and disorder through a stoic, constant presence - they become covered by roots, when paired with another they naturally disengage, they become the chameleons in the background. And all of this could work if the non-action translated to actually pay off or the atmosphere provided genuine tension, but unlike Neck Of The Woods where they got closest to that long, tangled darkness, here the writing just isn't delivering the immediacy the production demands, and it just leaves the entire project feeling tepid, or in the case of 'Strawman', borderline incoherent with its sardonic but really just undercooked poetry. Now granted, there's a way to be the stoic observer from the sidelines and still instill drama - La Dispute nailed this beautifully on Panorama just this year - but that was built on atmosphere and empathy and moments of visceral release, none of which Silversun Pickups really provide.

So as a whole... look, I've been harsh to this, but that's more out of disappointment than anything, especially as this doesn't feel like an unlistenable failure. I can still put this on in the background and get through it, especially when the grooves get a little more interesting. But a major miscalculation in production and composition played to none of the band's strengths and the writing doesn't match with it - worse still, if this was supposed to give Silversun Pickups more immediacy or crossover appeal, I'm not sure you get there with these hooks, which especially by the title track feel played out and basic. Overall... look, it's not terrible, but it's not good, more just misconceived, boring, and frustrating in its missed potential. Very light 5/10, only for the fans who aren't going to riot when they hear the utter loss of atmosphere, and otherwise... yeah, you can skip this.

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