Music Reviews
Big Echo

The Morning Benders Big Echo

(Rough Trade) Rating - 7/10
The Morning Benders have moved from their original locale in San Francisco – a city that, for all its pretensions, is mirrored by the folk-ish sound of the band’s first release Talking Through Tin Cans on +1 Records – to New York City, and their second LP and debut for Rough Trade presents their music in a similar transition. In other words, the Morning Benders’ music is in between moves. The first song, Excuses, from Big Echo illustrates this. The frying pan crackle of vinyl is an appetizer for the lap steel intro, which grows into a sunny, full chamber-pop sound with strings and acoustic guitar. This, along with the vocal harmonies and lyrics about making love, all fits into the Haight-Ashbury musical neighborhood. However, the occasionally murky studio production, the stacks of overdubs, and heavy use of strings all point to a kind of big city perfectionism – one that makes the Morning Benders potentially major contenders in the new indie rock universe.
Much of this owes to the influence of Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, who co-produced this record with the Morning Benders’ lead singer and songwriter Chris Chu. While the band typically makes songs reminiscent of Neil Young and, - for more recent points of comparison - Blitzen Trapper and John Vanderslice, the Grizzly Bear similarities become more apparent when the studio becomes the dominating instrument. This is not to say that The Morning Benders sound exactly like the Grizzly Bear choir boys. The latter’s vocals are generally more immediate, their hooks generally catchier, and their lyrics generally more memorable than the former. In fact, the more the album resembles Grizzly Bear – as on Wet Cement, Mason Jar, and Sleeping In – the more forgettable it becomes.
The Benders sound buttoned-up and clean-cut, infinitely pleasant and inoffensive, one suggestive song title (Pleasure Sighs) notwithstanding. The song in question is a soundtrack to a post-coital shower. They put some fuzzy guitar noise at the front of the mix, but this is no more abrasive than a luffa – working like the finest grade of sandpaper to smooth out the edges.
On some songs, they sound like they’ve completed their transition. Promises kicks off with a pentatonic hook so infectious that the band itself can’t resist humming along to it. The shuffle feel is a nod to the confidence of vintage Motown, but they later enter into a swaying tip-of-the-hat to the Beach Boys, hinting that – though R&B and southern rock may be the basis of some of their song-craft – Brian Wilson is the clear inspiration for the production. All Day Daylight is, likewise, grooving pop gold.
Displaying the span of their influences, the Benders keep a blog on which they’ve embedded songs that range from the predictable (Neil Young; Bruce Springsteen) to the less-expected (classic soul diva Irma Thomas; Mariah Carey). The most surprising may be the fact that they’ve posted the video for the song Thank You by a straight-laced Philadelphia group called Boyz II Men (the post title: “best. song. ever.”), which may seem like sarcastic indie snobbery. This observer leans toward a different conclusion: The Benders really love this song. And why wouldn’t they? You can even hear and see some similarities between the two groups: the close and clustered vocal harmonies, the studio polish, the perfectionism, the harmlessly sexual lyrics, the politeness, the boyishness – not to mention the wardrobe that ought to look familiar to fans of argyle-sporting indie bands. Interestingly, such musical omnivores tend to make beautiful and well-orchestrated tunes, but they also tend to struggle to find their true home. The Morning Benders may have moved in, but it sounds as if they’re still unpacking boxes.