Forget everything you knew about the Morning Benders — they already did. The San Francisco indie pop group, who built a sunny and ornate chamber pop gem on 2010’s Big Echo, have taken numerous steps to replace every one of their defining elements, beginning with a relocation to Brooklyn. Earlier this year, the group announced they were changing their name to POP ETC., as a result of learning about the homophobic connotations of the word “bender” in the UK. And on the group’s self-titled debut album, the lush, summertime indie pop feel has been swapped out for beat-laden electronic floor fillers and more Auto-tune than ever thought possible from a group of laid-back, pastoral popsters.
Given the new direction for the group, choosing POP ETC. is a fitting choice on the band’s part, its blanket catch-all working simultaneously as a personal description and mission statement. For a slightly more specific clue to where they’re going, however, look to the text-based album cover, which ultimately stands as a list of genres — rock, hip-hop, soul, funk, reggae, blues, techno, new age, punk, disco, folk, country, jazz, house, psych, R&B — most of which are at least partially represented. There’s probably a bigger statement in there about how pop music encapsulates everything, and that’s true I suppose, but that hardly matters. The capitalization of POP, however, is about as blatant an indication as you can get that the band has put all of their eggs in a new basket.
The transformation undertaken on POP ETC. is, at best, a mixed blessing. As much as the idea of breezy, string-laden indie pop had started to lose its sense of romance, the group’s misguided attempts at embracing Top 40 electronic sparkle fall flat largely because frontman Christopher Chu doesn’t have anywhere near the charisma of Usher or Rihanna. There’s no shame in being an indie dork, but selling a big, synth-laden production like “R.Y.B.” demands a personality that doesn’t end up swallowed by the production. And despite the admittedly bold attempts at stepping outside the Benders’ comfort zone and into unexplored (by them, anyhow) pop realms, they ultimately come across as Hot 100 also-rans, facelessly coat-tailing artists like David Guetta and Calvin Harris, whose songs pretty much sucked to begin with. That said, the unusually shallow and vapid “Live It Up” would be cringe-worthy in any context.
For as many tracks here that fail spectacularly, the album on the whole does contain several charming highlights. The ethereally grooving “I Wanna Be Your Man” finds a happy medium between big, booming drums and haunting synth and guitar layers. The thick buzz of “Halfway to Heaven” comes across like Phoenix after a mainstream makeover, and “Keep It For Your Own,” produced by Danger Mouse, holds up well against the producer’s work with James Mercer as Broken Bells. It’s tempting to say that one of the biggest problems with POP ETC. is that they attempt too much, but that’s only a secondary concern to their almost amateurish attempts at playing pop star. This is a talented group of songwriters and musicians, and ones that are certainly capable of evolving. But until they overcome the urge to indulge their own bad taste, it’s hard not to see this rebranding as, ultimately, a very poor decision.
Video: POP ETC. – “Live It Up”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.