What I’m listening to: POP ETC

The band formerly known as The Morning Benders gets a new name, and a new sound

By now you’ve probably already heard—The Morning Benders, known for their sweet, summery melodies, and Phil Spector-style “Wall of Sound”—are no more. Last spring, the band changed its name to POP ETC, after discovering that “bender” is a derogatory term for gay people in the UK. And who can blame them? Homophobia is never cool…and with the new name comes an opportunity for reinvention. On new record POP ETC, the band foregoes its beachy influences for a new sound—that mixes pop, R&B, hip-hop, and more, into a semi-successful collection of tunes.

“[We chose the name POP ETC because] pop music is so broad, even though some people pigeonhole it into one thing, so we felt like it gave us a lot of freedom and we liked the idea that we can grow with it in the future,” explains band leader Chris Chu to MTV Hive.

“[2010’s] Big Echo was, sonically, very much a record about subtlety, while this new album is fueled much more by immediacy,” he explains further to Life and Times, adding that if Big Echo was influenced by Big Star, POP ETC would be influenced by Kanye or the-Dream.

Still, that doesn’t mean that listeners with beach-y leanings won’t find things to love here—from late-night party tracks to harmony-filled slow grooves. Opener “New Life” is a pure slice of ‘80s POP, complete with wiggly synths, auto-tuned vocals, and some cheesy (but not too cheesy) spoken word vocals (“Early on I decided I was gonna be a tough guy, a shark, and bite my way to the top“).  Listeners hoping for summery sounds will be disappointed…but this track does a good job capturing that sort of drunken, late-night regret, swaying on the dance floor, remembering a past love.

Follower “Back to Your Heart” is more dance-floor rager, with a punchy chorus that should appeal to the LMFAO crowd—while “Halfway to Heaven” finds the boys recasting their sunny, Beatles-esque harmonies into Motown-inspired smooth grooves, with Chu mastering a soulful falsetto. Is it a little early ‘90s R&B-sounding? Oh yeah. But sometimes you need exactly that in your life.

“Keep it for Your Own” is the clear record highlight, and not surprisingly, sounds the most like The Morning Benders of yore, with a slight tropical flair, skulking beat, and airy chorus. Danger Mouse gets producer/co-songwriter credit here, and—we’re guessing—is partially responsible the sultry, slinky atmosphere.

Follower  “Live it Up,” by comparison, is the proverbial popped collar of the record, so cliché and overwrought it’s tough to even like ironically, with heavy use of autotune and lyrics that lean towards douchebaggery. Chris Chu can’t be serious here—he must be making a statement on the cheesiness of pop music in general, right? “R.Y.B.” (that stands for “Rock Your Body,” of course) is not even as good as an LMFAO song, with an oversimplified chorus, and not much else. (I confess I haven’t listened to much LMFAO, but it must be better than this, right?)

Luckily, the good tracks almost make up for it—“Keep it for Your Own”, “Everything is Gone” (feat. swirling keys and a funky, groovy melody); closer “Yoyo” (pure, dancefloor pop.). At the end of the day though, I admit I don’t find POP ETC as intoxicating or life-affirming as Big Echo, a record that seemed made for sunny summer days. But it’s nice to see a band pushing its limits, even if it’s not entirely successful. And who knows? Maybe the band’s next record will be the next My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Stranger things have happened in the world of pop, etc.

POP ETC is out now on Merge Records; stream the entire thing for free via MTV Hive


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