After linking themselves to every significant indie scene in the country in the last three years (L.A.’s Silver Lake, San Francisco, Williamsburg), forging a sonic and friendly relationship with the hotter-than-dog-shit Girls, and soliciting production help from one-fourth of Grizzly Bear (Chris Taylor), Morning Benders are suddenly a “band to watch.” But the band’s great luck and those three facts undermine their sophomore effort, Big Echo, to a certain degree: Since 2008’s Talking Through Tin Cans, they’ve showcased a prenatural ability at melody crafting, synthesizing the elements of ‘50s doo-wop, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, AM-lite, and ‘90s pop into something not entirely distinct but often thoroughly enjoyable. Those famous friends and scene-ties get them onto blogs (like ours) and make for easy comparisons, but it’s the Morning Benders who have been perfecting their already established sonic aesthetic.
And perfect it they have, at least on opening salvo “Excuses,” far and away the best track here. It starts with a needle hitting vinyl and proceeds to outdo at least half of the stuff they’re referencing. Lead singer’s Chris Chu’s nasally inflection moans and whines in perfect harmony with the reverbed guitars and lush string arrangements, before breaking down into a show-stopping a cappella breakdown halfway through and picking up the melody again with force. The subtlety of this breakout moment is what could make it last; it’s not the kind of song that bears its will on you.
If you can make it to the rest of the album (and trust me, it will be difficult) there are a few more retro-thrills. “Cold War (Nice Clean Fight)” winds its way between the album’s most frantic arrangement and a barbershop-quartet-like verse. The handclaps buried in the mix of “All Day Daylight” gives the song an arena-conquering vibe, even if this band hasn’t played much bigger than your neighborhood bar. But the jaunty “Promises” is probably the song that will breakthrough in a more significant way, since it has the albums highest-flying chorus and a guitar riff that sounds like it was written with movie trailers in mind.
But coming back to Morning Beders’ friends is unavoidable: The main thing preventing Big Echo from being a very good (or even a great) album is that the bulk of it is clearly and undeniably influenced by the quieter moments from Grizzly Bear’s oeuvre. While Morning Benders have the chops to pull off the flashier moments (again, like on “Excuses”), they don’t quite have the craftsmanship required to pull of the softer stuff. While Grizzly Bear’s sterling technical proficiency and robust harmonies can make even their most lifeless tracks uplifting, Morning Benders make long stretches of the album congeal together into one long languid burner. But there’s more than enough here to be convinced that they might work that out next time around.