As the past decade saw alternative rock splinter into dozens upon dozens of hyper-specialized micro-genres, Silversun Pickups stayed out of the corners and in the middle of the road. The Los Angeles quartet’s big-riffed, nuance-free songs sounded surprisingly fresh for a style that Smashing Pumpkins seemingly squeezed every last drop of distortion out of by 1996. “Neck of the Woods” is the group’s third album and the first that isn’t wrapped in an all-encompassing blanket of fuzz. Now we know what lurks beneath the surface of the band’s songs — not all that much.
“Neck of the Woods” has the sound of a band straining to break out of its comfort zone but never getting truly uncomfortable. Layered guitars aren’t replaced; emptiness and open space populate many of these songs. Maybe it’s atmospheric or slightly arty, but often it just sounds uninspired. Almost every song starts as a mid-tempo crawl highlighted by simple effects — delayed guitars, echoed drums — before reaching the inevitable burst. When it comes to those supersize choruses, the Pickups can still bludgeon with the best of them: “Mean Spirits” has a hefty groove left over from the Clinton years, and “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)” finds a balance between arena-size ambition and headphone-worthy attention to detail.
“Neck of the Woods” is mostly a matter of waiting for those big moments to hit, as the band remains more about the sound than the songs. This extends to the vocals, where singer Brian Aubert’s angsty growl fits the dark tone, but his lyrics (“I’ll sentence everyone over 21 to the guillotine,” “Never felt anything like the cold of these empty spaces”) read like something from the confiscated notebook of the kid in the back corner who wasn’t paying attention during sixth period. But it’s nothing a few more layers of guitars can’t drown out.
“Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings),”