On their sophomore and breakthrough album, Big Echo, the Morning Benders built a compelling sound of jangling guitars and reverb saturated harmonies that was steeped in decades old influences, while remaining firmly tethered to the contemporary musical moment. This melding of past and present continues to inform the band’s work as POP ETC, but the rock based sounds of the ’60s have been supplanted by the canned beats and synthesizers of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And while POP ETC is composed of three-fourths of the members of the Morning Benders, that is where the similarities between the two projects end.
The decision to change their name was originally a result of the bands’ unfortunate realization that the word ‘bender’ has homophobic connotations in Great Britain. Their label has done a great job flooding the Internet with the news of their rebranding, and it is unlikely that any fans of the Morning Benders will have missed the fact that they’ve been reborn as POP ETC. Unfortunately, they may miss everything else about them. And while there are some fine tunes and some fun, inventive moments on POP ETC, there is nothing approaching the grandeur of Big Echo’s most memorable tracks.
From the first computerized tones of “New Life”, it’s clear that we’re nowhere near the place where the band left us with Big Echo’s epic coda of raw guitar distortion and soaring, ghostly harmonies. However, the song does pull you in, in a very different sort of way, with a laid back electro-soul pulse that lands somewhere between the ‘80s cribbing indie of bands like Twin Shadow or Chairlift and the pure cheese of Top 40 r ‘n’ b. When the chorus drops, frontman Chris Chu sings “If I could / Give it all back / Give it all back / For just one more day with you,” in a rising auto-tuned melody that really digs into your head. Lyrically, it’s a moment of honest vulnerability that will soon be overwhelmed by an album worth of awkward r ‘n’ b aphorisms as evidenced by titles such as “Rock Your Body”, “Live It Up”, “Why’d You Do It Honey”, and “I Wanna Be Your Man”. Both musically and lyrically, the album strikes a delicate balancing act between irony, appropriation and genuine respect for its source material, but the result is a sound that often feels more than a bit contrived.
The band enlisted the help of such A-list producers as Danger Mouse and Andrew Dawson (Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne) and there are a few moments of pure pop perfection, most strikingly on “Keep it For Your Own”. This song builds from a subtle minor key keyboard line into a straight up indie rock arrangement of acoustic downstrokes and super catchy bass. Chu’s vocals swell from the gorgeous melodies that were so prominent on Big Echo, to a rousing, shout along chorus. It’s a great song, and there’s no coincidence that it’s more in keeping with their previous work than anything else on the album.
Reinvention is an important element of the creative process, particularly for pop musicians whose medium can tend so often toward formula and cliché. And while the relationship between genre and authenticity is more complicated in today’s music culture than ever before, there remains a critical interplay between style and substance that this album doesn’t quite seem to get. With a song like “Keep It For Your Own”, however, one can hope that there are still great things to come for POP ETC and that this album marks a transition rather than an arrival.