Last year, when The Morning Benders contributed a cover of The Strokes’ “Last Nite” to Stereogum’s Is This It tribute album, the fact that they had used a minimal electronic kind of sound instead of the baroque pop found on their glorious 2010 album Big Echo lead me to describe it as “limp” and “a disappointment.” Little did I know that this was only the tip of the iceberg.
Fast forward a year and The Morning Benders no longer exist; they are now POP ETC and that cover of “Last Nite” makes much more sense in hindsight, it being a sign of what was to come on this, POP ETC’s self-titled debut album (or third album, depending on which way you look at it, but considering the leap in sound, I feel more comfortable considering it a debut).
The concept behind POP ETC is pretty clear from the title and album cover; the band is making a much catchier and poppier sound, trying to bring in influences from all over the map. In an interview explaining the change in style, singer Chris Chu name checked Boyz II Men and Madonna as artists that had shown him the lasting power of mainstream pop, but no songs on this collection even hint at the timelessness of the greatest hits of those two artists.
Unfortunately, instead of putting together an interesting mix of influences, POP ETC have ended up with a set of songs that remain squarely within a basic structure based around looping electronics and obvious vocal hooks. The opening notes of “New Life,” played on keyboard sound instantly sterile and inhuman; a far cry from the warm vinyl crackle that heralds the opening of Big Echo. Inside the opening track we have everything needed to tell us that this is a different band: hackneyed dialogue samples, autotune, a lack of guitars, and a repeated eye-roll-worthy chorus of “If I could give it all back/ just for one more day with you.” Things only seem to get worse as the second track, “Back To Your Heart,” begins with the rhyming couplet “Let me take this straight from the top/ we were making love and we couldn’t stop.” And if you’re not feeling the opening tracks, you’re unlikely to make it through the album as versatility is at a minimum.
Of course, looking at POP ETC through the lens of a disappointed fan of The Morning Benders is unfair and certainly not the only way the album should be judged. Taken at face value there are a number of songs that are undeniable ear worms, mainly due to Chu’s ability to consistently come up with catchy vocal melodies, but also because these songs are packed with large and colorful melodies. But their punchiness and repetitiveness can quickly get on one’s nerves, depending on your disposition. On songs like “Halfway To Heaven” the band also shows their ability to write a set of intertwining synth melodies and throw in a few extra layers of sound that make for interesting if you’re not fully engaged. Essentially that’s what POP ETC boils down to: it’s a collection of songs that are easy to enjoy when thrown on in the background, but closer listening will reveal their simplicity and the fact that they are essentially in the same class as radio fodder like B.o.B. or Owl City. Even songs that hint at greater things, like “Keep It For Your Own” which has actual guitar and piano, is destroyed by an obnoxious, by the numbers, synth-led chorus.
In the end it’s hard not to see POP ETC as a disappointment, even when trying to avoid looking at it as a non-Morning Benders album. That said, there is certainly still an audience for this kind of music; an audience that will not be interested in the album as a whole, but who will be more than happy to download some of the strongest songs like “Halfway To Heaven” and add them to their summer playlists, only for them to likely be forgotten about come September.