The Morning Benders: Big Echo, Album Review


Vinyl giveaway details at the end of the review.
The Morning Benders
Big Echo
Rough Trade
out March 9th

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They say there are five stages of grief. I’ve gone through five stages of The Morning Benders.

Stage 1: Surprise. I started seeing the name The Morning Benders all over the interwebs - seemingly overnight – having never heard of the band before. They were buzzed on blogs, tweeted on twitter, and highly popular on Hype Machine, all in the blink of an eye. Where did these guys come from? What are they doing here? Get off my lawn, you damn kids!

Stage 2: Curiosity. See, I hadn’t heard of the band before (I missed their 2008 debut LP, Talking Through Tin Cans, and the EPs that preceded it) and I was caught off guard. But that surprise, as surprise is wont to do, quickly turned to curiosity. Clearly The Morning Benders were doing something right to capture as much attention as they had. I wanted to hear what they had to offer, these wunderkinds of indie rock. And since curiosity is so easily satisfied in our modern world of music, I scrolled around and streamed a couple of tunes.

Stage 3: Doubt. What? How did these mediocre tunes manage to capture the attention of the beat-and remix-driven blogosphere? On first listen, I saw nothing particularly notable about The Morning Benders. A marked lack of distinction, in fact. Big Echo was full of sunnily inoffensive songs, yes. But a captivating and engaging album? No. It was a forgettable little disc worth a listen or two at most.

Stage 4: Re-examination. But over the next couple weeks I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something, that I hadn’t given the album a fair chance. I resisted and resisted, but finally I went back. I turned on the album in the background as I worked. I played it in my kitchen as I cooked. I sat down and listened to it closely, paying attention to the layers beneath the surface.

Stage 5: Obsession. And then I was obsessed. What originally seemed to be superficial pop tunes revealed themselves to be blissfully textured, original indie rock. The riffs are infectious, without sacrificing lyrical content or musical experimentation. These are not your parents' Beach Boys, though they may bear a striking resemblance at times.

No, these boys from Berkley have a style all their own, merging sunny harmonies with brooding, buzzing guitars. The album is produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, and he has a great ear for sonic depth, allowing notes to ring out clearly across a wide spectrum. And although at times, like on “Mason Jar” and “Stitches,” lead Bender Chris Chu’s voice recalls Grizzly Bear’s sound, those moments are an afterthought on the disc. The majority of the time, Taylor allows The Morning Benders to paint with colors from their own palette, and it shows off their strengths beautifully, fluidly oscillating between grungey garage rock and surf anthems.

The songs on Big Echo are some of the most emotionally expressive indie pop I’ve heard in the past few years. Chu’s voice, without sounding strained, can communicate emotion typically reserved for the Jeff Mangums of the world. On “Promises,” he belts the phrase, “I can’t help thinking we grew up too fast,” and I believe that he means it. This is no false emotion; there’s a genuine sadness that The Morning Benders had to grow up. Sometimes I share it – these kids could make a dynamite summer teen rock album.

Have I mentioned how fun these songs are to listen to? I think I have, but I’m not sure I’ve really communicated it enough. These songs are fun to listen to. Big Echo isn’t overly sappy or sweet, the way you might think an album from a group of mop-headed twenty-somethings from Berkley, California might be, but it’s pretty damn enjoyable. It’s accessible, but deeper than you (or I) would think on first listen. These songs are fun to listen to.

Aside from a section in the aforementioned “Mason Jar” that unavoidably recalls an old Foo Fighters song, Big Echo is destructively original, combining hints and wisps of the strongest groups in music both present and past - Grizzly Bear’s haunting beauty, the Beach Boys’ cheerful charm, Nirvana’s gutty guitars, Wilco’s scratchy experimentation. But I’m not saying that The Morning Benders should be compared to those bands, or that they are clones of former styles. Instead, let’s just acknowledge the potential for greatness with this young band. They stand poised to make big moves, with the talent and adaptability to make those moves in any number of directions. I challenge you to find a more solid four song opening to a recent record than “Excuses,” “Promises,” “Wet Cement,” and “Cold War (Nice Clean Fight).”

Although the album seems to fade a tad on the second half, it’s more of a step back than a step down – the band slowing down, trying things out, taking stock. It’s a welcome tap on the brakes, a chance for listeners to catch their breath and a signal that Chu and company aren’t perfect practitioners of a craft. The Morning Benders are emotional musicians, young kids who have grown up too fast and find themselves in the spotlight while still trying to figure out their complete identity. That honesty and transparency is what drives Big Echo to greatness.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve recommended this album to in the past two weeks. My playcounts for Big Echo are in double digits. I can’t get enough of the album and, honestly, I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to come around. These songs are fun to listen to.

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