As the name and cover of their album suggest, Julian Harmon, Jon and Chris Chu make pop music and a little bit of everything else. As you may know, they used to be called the Morning Benders, but have since changed their name out of respect for the LBGT community. While altering a brand might not be popular with their label, it puts the musicians in the enviable position of being a well-established and well-liked act with a good excuse to go in an utterly new direction as Pop Etc.
That’s obvious from the first track on the album onwards, which seems almost to intentionally come out and institute, lyrically at least, that this is going to be a pop album. The song’s narrator sings about a former lover, wondering if she’s doing ok, lamenting that he still can quite get over it all. “If I could, I would give it all back for just one more day with you,” Chris Chu cries on the chorus over shimmering synths.
For all the regretting and looking back that he seems to do, the title of the song, “New Life” doesn’t really fit. It’s a song about past events and the correspondent feelings that said life dumped on him post break-up. The song guts the phrase “new life” of its positive associations and substitutes some sad story that might be more appropriately labelled “pathetic life.” So what then is new in this song, if not the life of narrator?
Everything else, really. A fan of Big Echo might not recognize “New Life” as coming from the same band who recorded “Excuses” if they caught it mid-song on the radio. Indeed, the Brooklyn-via-Berkley trio have sewn together the fragments of contemporary music into a brightly colored quilt and thrown it on top of their old sound and called it Pop Etc. Reverb in abundance, synths of all kinds and persuasions, auto-tune worthy of T-Pain, funky little bloopy effects; it’s all here, gracefully laid on top of the old indie-pop sound our radio listener might have held dear.
That radio listener, though, is one happy individual.”New Life” and much of the rest of the LP, offers a good time to anyone willing to half-way pay attention, sounding “fun” and danceable despite the lyrical melancholy—not unlike fellow Brooklynite indie-poppers Passion Pit. Pop Etc, though, never quite take themselves that seriously and invite the listener to remain irreverent as well. After hearing Chu declare, “I came here to party, don’t bring me down,” at the outset of the almost farcical song, “R.Y.B.” (Rock Your Body), your reaction might be to jam the skip button, as mine was, but Chu anticipates this: “I know the world is ending / So don’t try to pick this apart / I know where I stand.” The song can be taken as a self-aware parody of typical “let’s go dance” pop songs, and I apologize for picking at it, but it is a well-done satire.
Inherent or implied behind the gloss of said pop songs is the desire to forget what’s going on before the dance, which in Chu’s case is that “the world is ending.” It is a sense of social responsibility at its most vague, and it rises again in the third verse: “I don’t own an SUV, so don’t you judge me. / When I roll up, I ain’t guzzlin’. / I’m doing my part, and then I’ll party till the sun comes out.” Whether he’s mocking his own justification of escapist pop or those who indulge in it, it’s hard not to laugh and dance a bit yourself.
So much of Pop Etc seems to be about breakdowns in communication––indeed, it’s the reason they changed their name––and then the consequences of and reactions to these breakdowns. This could, of course, be said to be the story of one character’s inner life, but on that last track, Pop Etc seem to be using the language of pop music to ask something of a meta-question; “Does this approach to music work for you, listener?” The music on this album shares with the narrator of the last song an unstable identity, and as Chu sings that last, auto-tuned line of the album, over and over, the question distances itself from the context of the song, and tries to be something more. –– Matt Conover