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Smashing Expectations

By John Brodeur

Silversun Pickups

Swoon (Dangerbird)

‘They’re a Gish cover band.” That was an easy but appropriate way to write off the Silversun Pickups when their “Lazy Eye” became a sleeper hit in 2007. The live experience did nothing to amend that description; here was a band that practiced in all the things that made Smashing Pumpkins a superband in the early ’90s—harsh soft-loud dynamics, fuzz-face guitar, and adenoidal, borderline feminine vocals (courtesy of bandleader Brian Aubert). Whether or not you liked it, you’d heard it all before.

Time and success can change a lot of things, and with their second full-length, Swoon, Silversun Pickups have not only delivered a record that grows on their promise but finds the band making a cosmic creative leap. They’ve become their own band with this new set: It’s ambitious; it’s got swagger; it’s a grower. And it actually feels like an album, not just a collection of singles. So there’s nothing as easy as “Lazy Eye,” but that’s a good thing—who needs a simple pop hook when you have a symphony at your disposal? The first half of Swoon, from the atmospheric expanse of “There’s No Secrets This Year” through the sinister, ballooning Radiohead groove of “It’s Nice to Know You Work Alone” and the overdriven charge of first single “Panic Switch,” is the best 26 minutes of rock music you’re likely to hear this year.

After such a brilliant start the second half could easily have been anticlimax, but following a brief bit of navel-gaze (“Draining”) the album roars back to life with “Sort Of,” the kind of frantic, dynamic anthem Billy Corgan would give his drummer to write at this point in his career. In an album filled with peaks and valleys, this one song makes the climb about 10 times, each time a bit higher and more slowly. When the orchestra returns for “Catch & Release,” it merely feels like sugar coating—who needs a symphony when you’ve got such a talented band at your disposal? With Swoon, Silversun Pickups are well on their way to being one of the defining acts of the decade.

Black Dice

Repo (Paw Tracks)

The realm in which experimental trio Black Dice operate is a place they call the “hive mind.” Like a wasp’s nest, it can be an uncomfortable place for the casual listener to stumble into, but to call the swarming clouds of sound the band concocts on Repo unwelcoming would be unfair. For upwards of a decade the band has made it their M.O. to sift through the cultural detritus to which every human being is now exposed on a second-to- second basis, and hew totemic assemblages of their findings in a manner that renders the mess all the more human for its mere intentionality. The hive can be a tough club to gain admittance to, but it’s certainly worth the effort. Upon first listen, Repo will sound raw and haphazard, woozy and cartoonish: That’s the point, but not the whole point. Samples of all manner of media will orbit your head. Drum breaks will speed up, gallop out of phase with engine fuzz and repeat. Fragments of an instructional cooking show will modulate pitch and decay. A guitar will establish a motif then abandon it. There’s almost something defensive about it, as if each sound is dive-bombing one’s head so as to protect the queen. The language brothers Eric and Bjorn Copeland speak with their bandmate Aaron Warren is as insular as the private tongue twins develop as toddlers, but the logic is sharp and decipherable. Enduring the initial onslaught is the price of admission here, and the repeat listener will be rewarded with admittance to increasingly complex chambers of the fort—like “Glazin,” which sounds like “Teenage Wasteland” for the Ritalin generation, and the bombastic “Ultra Vomit Graze,” which might even be considered funky. There’s probably something adolescent and even nihilistic about it all, but Black Dice are less concerned about erecting some idealistic clone from all the wreckage, than they are in proving the heap can be surmounted.

—Josh Potter

Monks

Black Monk Time (Light in the Attic)

It’s autumn, 1965; Southeast Asia and America’s inner cities are in full-on burn mode. Over in Germany, five recently discharged American GIs have formed a rock & roll band, and they find a following playing the same grimy Hamburg clubs that the Moptops did a few years before. But this wasn’t one of those sub-Beatle wannabe acts running rampant at the time—these were Beatle-slayers.

The Monks played like they wanted to take someone’s head off, full speed ahead and all systems go, laced with fuzz, wah, feedback and an incessant clanging rhythm fortified by an electrified banjo that sounds like a small black hole imploding each time the plectrum hits the strings. The organist, from the sounds of it, was raised on Bach and circus music. Together they made what is in my estimation one of the greatest rock & roll records of all time, Black Monk Time (reissued this year on the Light in the Attic label). Rhythm and mayhem is king here, but this isn’t just a bunch of guys flailing around aimlessly. The intent was not only to drink and get laid (though that was plenty important), it also was to stir shit up: subtle and not so subtle protests about the liars in charge and the kids dying in streets both foreign and domestic (and plenty of sexual innuendo) made these guys the spiritual forerunners to the MC5 and a slew of other bands now deemed proto-punk. Here you’ll find the germs of the Autobahn-inspired motorik beat of krautrock, except a heck of a lot faster and groovier. “Higgle-Dy-Piggle-Dy” and “I Hate You” have probably the most unhinged yet controlled guitar sounds put down on wax pre-Hendrix. Said guitarist, Gary Burger, also is the singer/yelper/ringleader; his asides and exhortations alone are worth the price of admission. Whenever you’re thinking rock and roll is dead, don’t be sad—it won’t be once you slap this baby on.

—Mike Hotter


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