Gradually riding a crest of slow-building, long-coming interest, the Morning Benders have proven themselves to be the Little Band That Could, toeing the line between old fashioned hard work and the contemporary music scene’s accelerated blogosphere hype. With a respectable catalog behind them (a clutch of DIY EPs and a charming full-length, all mostly self-recorded and bubbling with sunny, effervescent pop gems), songwriter/de-facto leader Chris Chu and his gang of ramshackle band mates have slowly paved their long and winding path toward their emergence in the indie spotlight, culminating in the jump from their modest tenure at +1 Records to a significantly higher profile with stalwarts Rough Trade. Hardly an overnight sensation, the Berkeley, California indie-pop-ers have benefited from avoiding the expedited downfall and backlash most hype bands face following such a hurried rise to the top. As a result, their subsequent arrival on the big stage of modern underground pop music feels lived-in and warranted, an inevitable yet overdue pay off for this zealously determined and persistent band of underachievers.
It wasn’t that the group didn’t warrant their big break, or that they had yet to record anything worthy of one. On the contrary, the Morning Benders’ music is brimming with modest, endearing quirks, yet they take time and patience to absorb. Despite the fact that there’s hardly anything unprecedented about their brand of West Coast pop, their approach is so unassuming, their demeanor so earnest and downright meek, that they don’t really easily attach themselves to a particular scene or label, making it especially difficult in today’s clique-oriented indie environment to gain much exposure. In the end, maybe in spite of their refreshing, sprightly punch, the group found themselves carving a well-earned spot in 2010’s grand turnout the traditional way: through steady touring, an admirable stream of respectable, winning releases, and what seems to be an antiquated method of word-of-mouth. The hard road is often the rewarding one, as the Morning Benders prove with Big Echo, earning a certain amount of merited attention denied to most up-and-comers. It’s with an engaging sense of anticipation that their fans and the curious await the album’s release.
Produced with detailed craft and care by Grizzly Bear multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor, the album has the Morning Benders infusing a certain amount of sterling, spacious clarity into their brisk, enchanting soundscape. With a rich new display of dynamics, both Taylor and the band blow open doors to a variety of new possibilities within their inspired but admittedly limited grasp of guitar pop. Nowhere does this benefit Big Echo more than on the stunning, bedraggled opener “Excuses”, a wistful, big-hearted paean to adolescent love and sex built on melancholic nostalgia and a hypnotic, verbless hook that seems to convey all of the feelings that words cannot. It’s almost too overwhelming an achievement to overcome, as its timeless, life-affirming clatter of emotions looms large over the rest of the record. It almost defies the other tracks to rise to the occasion of equaling its hopeful verve. Unfortunately none of the efforts that follow meet its sweeping effect on the audience.
That’s part of the problem with Big Echo. Despite all of its virtues, pure intentions and surface sheen, an album that should have justified a half decade’s trek to the top feels a little underwhelming, mostly due to an absence of strong songs or a purposeful reach to tie it all together. Aside from the aforementioned opener and its follow-up, “Promises” — not coincidentally both issued pre-release to promote the record — the Morning Benders’ highly anticipated sophomore album at first or second spin may seem to deliver on its potential. But at its core it is deficient of any reasons to keep the listener interested on successive replays. There are no hooks or youthful energy to rope us in. Coming from a band so naturally and sharply adept at such charms, it’s a little disheartening to realize that most of the record is well-produced and dressed-up mood music, chock full of well-tailored atmosphere but devoid of individual stamps to set any of it apart.
Rolling into the second half the songs all tend to bleed together, making it difficult to differentiate one track from the next. The only song with any hooks after the initial one-two punch is a mere 1:44 long (“Cold War [Nice Clean Fight]”), giving it absolutely no time to sink in or sit with the listener. Even in the event that there are hooks somewhere on Big Echo, they’re so buried in the production that for as long as it takes for them to unravel, their eventual revelation is elusive and anti-climactic. It seems that, in his endeavor to reconcile his songwriting character on his rough-and-tumble, self-recorded early records with the newly minted, expanded production stance, Chris Chu has undercooked his songs and put himself and his band at odds with what made them so likable in the first place.
For as underappreciated as the Morning Benders have been thus far during their lifespan, and for as unique a position as they occupy in today’s music scene, it’s unfortunate that what was designed as their introduction to a much deserved wider audience so often falls short of their previous high-water marks. Big Echo is hardly a bad record, and is not without its charms. It contains a clutch of songs and moments that long-time fans will cherish for years to come, yet is grievously unable to sustain that excellence in light of such a wealth of new circumstances. Too much here merely floats away into the ether, leaving little that sticks outside of a distant, intangible echo, rendering the album’s title entirely too appropriate to be ironic or self-aware.