Big Echo seems an apt title for an album preceded by a significantly loud and widespread Internet buzz. How to make the echo the heart of the matter—like a band (like many bands lately) whose reverb-heavy production is as indicative of their art, or artlessness, as their hooks, lyrics, or song structures. Not that The Morning Benders, a young quartet from San Francisco, fall into that category. However, they do face the same problem as every other band at this point: how do you make the release of the album a point from which your profile expands rather than contracts?
The album suffers from a bit from a similar blessing. It opens with the over-sized, fantastic, “Excuses,” a rollicking five-plus minutes of finely executed, exuberant frenzy, and the rest of the record feels a bit like the echo of those near perfect moments, like an extended aftershock that while jarring in its own right seems a little underwhelming in comparison to the main event which preceded it. “Excuses” channels, among other things, the sweet wonder of the strings from Etta James’ “At Last,” and the bombastic pop-furor of any number of Phil Spector productions; at the same time, it makes complete sense considered alongside a contemporary like Grizzly Bear’s work, mining a direct emotional output from a web of complexity.
That said, it seems only natural that the group enlisted GB’s Chris Taylor to help out guitarist and lead vocalist Christopher Chu with production. But his presence is, as it probably should be, merely a footnote to the songs, which stand or fall on their own merits. While The Morning Benders are obviously closely attuned to the secretive lives of sounds, they are without doubt focused on making music that lives or dies on the strength of the arrangements and the interplay between the askance input of images in the lyrics and the anthemic, overtly emotional music that surrounds them. These songs build in familiar ways, often starting from spare introductions and evolving into swollen identification-machines. That is, you are that guy at the center of the storm feeling what the vocalist is feeling, or you are, perhaps, kinda like, yeah yeah, been there, done that.
Morning Benders are a rock band. This is made clear on songs like “All Day Daylight” and “Promises.” Even “Pleasure Sighs,” which begins in a register reminiscent of doom-trilogy-era Neil Young, can’t help but wander into a stadium-sized, cathartic crescendo. Unlike Grizzly Bear—who I would argue functions by immersing the listener in a kind of sidereal world not unlike this one, but other all the same—The Morning Benders are inclined to drag listeners along the ebbs and flows of brash chords and into the abandon of fist-pumping choruses. The comparison to Grizzly Bear isn’t meant to be a means of judging quality, but merely a tool for showing the way that bands ostensibly belonging to the same genre do things completely differently, same instruments and all. Indie rock has long lost its cohesiveness, to state the obvious. In any case, “Pleasure Sighs” is one of the high-water marks of Big Echo, suitably filling out its ambitiously sized (see David Byrne) suit.
The big echo. Like a howl into The Grand Canyon, bigger and better than what preceded it. The Morning Benders seem to me a band that may end up belonging in a category (a non-existent non-genre, let’s say, again, not a qualitative comparison) with a group like Big Star, or even an outlier like Neil Young. They show here that they can do some normal things and make them sound fresh again, but lurking somewhere in there is the capacity to get weird and bewitched. It’s under the surface still, but it very well may make a move to the foreground before long.