When the Morning Benders changed their name to POP ETC earlier this year, they weren't kidding. The first album under the new moniker is exactly that: an uninhibited pop album that utilizes an "et cetera" of styles to supplement and enhance it's catchy melodies and heavy hooks. This isn't necessarily anything new for the band. Their 2010 effort Big Echo was full of sunny pop and atmospheric layers that struck a gorgeous balance that fed off their love of guitar-based '60s pop and looked forward with it, creating one of the best indie rock records of 2010.
While the band's pop sensibilities remain intact, it becomes immediately recognizable that something is different on their latest offering. The midtempo, lament of the album opener "New Life" begins with a synthesizer and remains present throughout most of the album along with a smattering of keyboards, drum machines, samples and vocal effects. Tracks like the opener or “Yoyo” are slickly produced, major chord offerings, showcasing a band that has traded in their guitars and headed for the all-ages club with FM radio on full blast.
This change in sound comes off like a completely different band and makes the name change seem less of a new moniker and more of an entirely new project. Undoubtedly, fans looking for more of the Morning Benders densely-layered psychedelic-pop will feel alienated. There is barely a hint of it anywhere on here. On the other hand, what has been created is an intriguing foray into a type of indie-R&B that sounds as much indebted to The-Dream as it is to Cut Copy which, as a result, could earn the group a entirely new fanbase.
After all, the new lineup (now a trio with lead-singer Christopher Chu's brother Jon now in the band) show they are more than apt to pull off this new sound. Tracks like the upbeat, electro-fueled of "Back to Your Heart" or the dreamy and ceaselessly catchy "Halfway to Heaven," will draw you into their new synthesized pop. These moments are pulled off so strongly that they might be enough to make you ignore the more campy moments like on the cutesy "Live It Up" where Chu does his best Omarion impression as he sings "so if you wanna go and meet up after the show/ I ain't never disrespect no woman, never called a girl a ho." Clearly Chu is having some fun but the earnestness of his delivery makes such moments more awkward than creatively clever.
In a recent interview with MTV Hive, band leader Christopher Chu spoke about his love for R&B and hip-hop but also about the the excessiveness of these genres. He alludes to wanting to pair it's sounds but challenge it's lyrical thematic elements. Given a close enough listen, Chu, along with some production help from Danger Mouse and studio juggernaut Andrew Dawson (Kanye West, Lil Wayne), succeed at moments to add some lyrical and musical depth, making POP ETC more than just a sugary pop record. In the end, though, this is often done too subtly and the album comes off more of just that: a thoroughly, modern pop album with all the intense highs and lows that come with it. Ultimately, it’s one’s own disposition on unabashed pop music that will fuel judgement, good or bad, of the record. Regardless of the judgement passed, POP ETC have pulled off something that most wouldn't dare to try.