Two years ago, you couldn’t turn on MTVu or any modern rock radio station without hearing the fuzzy, dusty escapism of “Lazy Eye”. The Los Angeles quartet had done the impossible, they brought back the chunky distortion and hip, teenage ’90s angst without the help of Billy Corgan or Dave Grohl. Some still don’t know who the Silversun Pickups are, but they sure as hell would recognize that song. The resulting debut Carnavas wasn’t huge, but it broke some waves in the indie rock circuit, and even desperate, unhappy kids that might otherwise listen to Nickelback or Saliva found recluse in the catchy shoegaze. It has taken some time, but those pesky LA kids are back with their follow up, aptly titled Swoon.
Sophomoric efforts are fickle things. Some bands coast by (e.g. The White Stripes, The Pixies), others trip on the hurdle and fall flat on their face (e.g. Franz Ferdinand, The Darkness). The problem is hype. If a band’s debut album is hot, fans will snuggle next to it for months, sometimes years, on end. Over time, the debut isn’t just a collection of songs anymore, they’re aspects of the band itself, hallmarks that have, unfortunately, become expectations. These expectations develop a gap in the budding fan base. Some want a little more of the same, while others, typically few, want something new. It’s this gap that leaves the new, hot band with two roads to follow — whatever the case, some will inevitably be disappointed. Such is the case here.
Everything’s intact: Chris Guanlao’s machine gun drumming, Nikki Monninger’s thudding bass and soft spoken harmonies (albeit fewer than expected, or wanted), Joe Lester’s breathless programming, and naturally, Brian Aubert’s nasally, fem-like vocals. They even managed to snag producer Dave Cooley again, who keeps things sounding fairly similar. On first listen, and judging from that description, it’s clear the band went with the safety dance. So, what’s different?
Swoon‘s essentially Carnavas, yet without the hooks. There’s also less shoegaze involved, too. Opener “There’s No Secrets This Year” is no doubt catchy, but that’s because it doesn’t let up, as it continues to drive and drive. Where last album’s opener, “Melatonin”, pulled you in with both its affronting static distortion and layered sing-a-long choruses, “Secrets” depends solely on moving you. That’s not a bad thing, it just doesn’t make for an interesting listen. This is a consistent thing here. “Panic Switch”, the album’s first single, is somewhat victim to this too, though Aubert kicks up the distortion some, and brings back those sugary hooks that made songs “Well Thought Out Twinkles” and “Little Lover’s So Polite” so irresistible. When Aubert sings, “And when you see yourself in a crowded room/Do your fingers itch, are you pistol-whipped?/Will you step in line or release the glitch?/Do you think she’ll sleep with the panic… “, you can’t help but mumble it an hour or two later.
It’s not all drag racing though. Some songs just suffer from lack of substance. “Draining” is redundant and coasts a little too close to that 1999 sound, “Substitution” could have been a Coheed and Cambria b-side, and not even the violin can save “Catch & Release” from sounding too circulatory. These stretch out the album by jarring the pace. When there’s so much adrenaline building up, it’s hard to “get behind” the few sluggish tracks.
There are some highlights. “Growing Old is Getting Old” may be the strongest track of the album, and possibly the band’s career. In any other song, Monninger’s walled in bass would drive someone insane, but thanks to Aubert’s alleyway whispers and Lester’s Moby-like filters, it’s just too damn hip to ignore. “Sort Of” is the song that will please both parties new and old, as it carries everything that brought the band into the foray two to three years ago. Aubert finds his lyrical hooks again (“Do you think it’s sort of a crutch?/When you try to move me to touch?”) and Guanlao sounds wonderful on that kit of his. Closing the album out, “Surrounded” is the best and worst of the ’90s, think My Bloody Valentine meets Savage Garden, and yet it’s something to adore in a bittersweet sort of way.
Unlike a few bands who’ve managed to muck things up, this sophomoric effort shouldn’t be filed under catastrophe. It shouldn’t even be considered bad, or even a disappointment. Though it’s hard to decide what to call it. There’s nothing relatively jaw dropping and there’s nothing revelatory. Altogether, Swoon is just a little bit more of what you’ve had before. It’s that second helping you don’t really need, but kind of want. If that makes any sense to you, then by all means dig in.