Souvenir is the second release from POP ETC, formerly known as the Morning Benders. The band announced the change in name in March of 2012, citing the fact that bender had homophobic connotations in Europe. The change in moniker also coincided with a change in sound, gone was the cinematic chamber pop of 2010’s The Big Echo, replaced by an embrace of synthesizers and other electronic textures. It wasn’t the most jarring shift, plenty of POP ETC’s peers and forebears had made similar shifts in style, but the songwriting was viewed as lacking by some, such Pitchfork. Still, other publications were more positive in their assessment, such as the A.V. Club, where the record garnered a B+ rating. The consensus placed the album at the middle of the pack, about right for a band in a bit of an identity crisis, not seemingly fully invested in the style makeover.
The band’s early output was never going to the change the world, it was workmanlike indie rock: catchy melodies, appealing production, and solid songwriting. Workmanlike isn’t a knock, I look forward to releases from Teenage Fanclub and Yo La Tengo despite expecting more of the same, because those artists are savvy enough to know where their skills lay. And they, to crib a page from Mike Love, “don’t fuck with the formula”. I was a big fan of Talking Through Tin Cans and Big Echo, the jangly guitars, infectious melodies, were familiar, but never felt derivative because the song craft and production were there.
I never bothered to purchase POP ETC due to less than enthusiastic reviews, but listening to Souvenir makes me want to revisit that record in order to view the change in the group’s style in a more embryonic fashion. The opening track, “Please Don’t Forget Me”, recalls some of the wide-screen cinematic grandeur of Big Echo while incorporating the synths and other textures of POP ETC. Vocally and musically “Running in Circles” recalls Reptar’s “Ice Black Sand”. Synthesizers are the main texture, but guitar hasn’t been exiled entirely from the band’s vocabulary, the two find a happy marriage on “Backwards World”, which represents a nice template for future efforts by the band.
Christopher Chu feels more self-assured on this album, as if the preceding record was a warmup. Anytime there’s a huge shift in approach, there are bound to be some hiccups as well and high and low points. Souvenir is like that. Whereas POP ETC felt like a consumer-mandated shift in styles, Souvenir feels more naturalistic, less like a grasp at trends and in-vogue sounds. Souvenir is a return to the band’s strengths: song structure and an understanding of what makes a good melody. On this album, the POP ETC finds a happy balance between what came before and where they’d like to go.