2005 was a banner year for independent-minded rock and pop acts. LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A. and Bloc Party each released LPs that proved small, ambitious bands could have an outsized influence, thanks to a confluence of high-speed internet, acts meshing rock and electronics, and new kinds of music media.
2005 was also the year that a Silver Lake indie act named Silversun Pickups released its first EP of gauzy, riff-driven rock -- one that never lost its yen for actually rocking. Ten years later, the band remains one of just a few acts to come up the L.A. local rock club circuit to mainstream, national prominence on its own terms.
At Hollywood Forever’s Masonic Lodge on Monday (the second of a four-night stand for the quartet) they performed much of their new album “Better Nature,” which has a clarity and inventiveness that’s rare for a big band a decade into its career.
Plenty of hype cycles have passed over pop music in that intervening decade. But Silversun Pickups outlasted almost all of them, earning a Grammy nomination and selling hundreds of thousands of records on the local indie Dangerbird (they’ve since moved onto their own label, New Machine).
Unlike in 2005, when Brooklynites still thought we were spilling In ’N Out on our leather pants at Sunset Strip hair metal shows, it’s far beyond passe to rip on the L.A. music scene. It’s also time to finally give the Pickups their influential due.
Right now in American music, allegiance tends towards either pure pop worship (Taylor Swift), sad-sack rap and R&B (Drake, The Weeknd) or the endless heaving sea of electronic music. If a heavy rock band breaks through, it’s a band like Imagine Dragons that plays by pop’s same rules, or like the Black Keys that reminds fans of older times.
With “Better Nature,” Silversun Pickups figured out that a divorce from the Internet-cool-kid gyre is kind of liberating. On Monday, they played with all the distorted, throat-shredding howls of their club days, but laced them with more prominent electronics and tasteful post-punk. A veteran band tried new moves while losing none of its focus.
For “Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance),” singer Brian Aubert took a backseat to bassist Nikki Monninger on the hook, which gave the songs a wistful call-and-response feel that sounded entirely fresh for them. The raucous “Nightlight” has the band’s strongest chorus in a decade, and to judge by the fan fist-pumps during its lyrics of “We only want it with the lights out,” it’s a single that could prove a shot in the arm on rock radio for them.
Another nice surprise: a new live-set emphasis on keyboardist Joe Lester. His wispy synth pads always got lost in the tumult during past live shows, but his arrangements cut through with new intention on Monday. Even the down-tempo ballad “Friendly Fires” had one of Aubert’s most vulnerable, reaching-for-it vocal performances. This is the rare rock band that, a decade in, is writing its most undisguised music yet.
So much so, in fact, that even the older material felt new by comparison. KROQ hits like “Panic Switch” and “Lazy Eye” will enliven any indie rockers who moved to L.A. right when the George W. Bush presidency seemed most interminable. But to hear them now, the Pickups sound like a band whose mix of loudness, tenderness and expansive production proved even more durable than its fans suspected when it debuted.
Music has changed in countless ways since then. With all the economics and sonic trends allied against them, it’s hard to imagine anyone starting a band like this in L.A. today.
But they may not need to: after this round of shows, it’s more and more certain that Silversun Pickups aren’t going anywhere.
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