You have to hand it to the Morning Benders: They sure know their way around a melody. Talking Through Tin Cans, the Berkeley, California, quartet’s debut LP, is packed full of them. From the hand claps and tambourines of opener “Damnit Anna” to the effortless “Crosseyed” and the stellar “Loose Change,” the Morning Benders keep things light and lilting, never straying too far from an instantly recognizable hook, and always showing their obvious debt to the Beatles. In most regards, Talking Through Tin Cans is a solid, jangly, rootsy pop-rock record. But the Morning Benders’ strength is also what holds them back. With so many easy melodies but nothing separating any of them, it all starts to sound similar.
I recently saw the Morning Benders open for Delta Spirit, who — like Simon Dawes, another Southern California band playing similarly catchy and deceivingly complex songs — deserves much more press than they get. The Morning Benders played first, and their early slot seems applicable to their album. Songs like “I Was Wrong” are catchy enough attract attention on first listen, and others, like “Boarded Doors,” are solid enough to inspire feet tapping and sing-alongs. But in the end, such as with “Wasted Time” and “Patient Patient,” many don’t feel worthy of further exploration. This is pop music after all; the melodies are sunny and instantly enjoyable, but nearly as quickly they can be forgotten.
Ultimately, I’m conflicted about this band and this album, and the reasons can be found in three songs, or rather, very brief parts of three songs. “Loose Change” may be the poppiest song, but when Chris Chu reaches into his higher register to sing, “Why can’t you just say what you mean?,” his emotional vulnerability takes it from an ordinary, Shins-style break-up song to a very personal place. Nearly the same applies to “Chasing a Ghost,” which Chu sings deliberately over a sparse, minor melody that builds and builds, illuminating the passion in his voice where elsewhere it blends right in.
The same vulnerability and catharsis is best on display in the raucous, final refrain of “Heavy Hearts.” Singing, “Everyone looks the same,” the momentum brings to mind the shaking, uneasy tension that made Rivers Cuomo’s abandon on Pinkerton tragic and beautiful.
If the Morning Benders continue to play simple but rather unmemorable pop songs, they’ll be forgotten. But if they dig a little deeper, they may uncover the passion beneath the pop.