POP ETC is the name that the members of The Morning Benders now trade under, following worries that their original name would cause offence to the gay community, particularly in the UK and Europe. It’s an admirable step that Chris Chu, Jon Chu and Julian Harmon have taken, especially since most of their fans are likely to be in the US where the word “bender” doesn’t really have homophobic connotations attached to it, (The Halo Benders, a Built to Spill side-project continue under that name) but it’s a fine way to address such issues, often brushed under the carpet in the indie world. That debate is for another time, though. The new name also serves to capture Chu and co’s radical change of direction as they’ve traded in the guitars, reverb-laden production and sunny harmonies of Big Echo for synths, pop, autotune and R’n’B, and big name producers Danger Mouse and Andrew Dawson (Kanye West). And you know what? POP ETC is bloody terrible.
Now, while I happily admit to being something of a music snob – and as a music writer (of sorts) I’d imagine I’m not alone in that – I love a cracking pop tune as much as the next person. Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ is probably the best pop song you’ll hear all year, and I just want to be exposed to good music – whether it’s Father John Misty or Katy Perry matters not. But what POP ETC offer us on their debut (or third album) is not the earworm or the singalong classic, but the song that makes you want to throw the radio through the window. It’s only when the corpse of The Morning Benders can be heard scraping on the coffin lid do things become close to bearable, and that happens rarely on this record. Those moments come in ‘Halfway to Heaven’ and ‘Keep It for Your Own’ which retain some charm and melody compared to the rest of the horrors on this record.
Opener ‘New Life’ takes Owl City’s use of the autotune to a new low, and contains such vintage lines as “If I could give it all back/For just one more day with you”, but that’s like Lennon and McCartney compared to ‘Back To Your Heart’ which begins with boyband “yeaaaah, yeaaahs” and heads steadily downhill with Chu singing “Let me take this straight from the top/We were makin’ love and we couldn’t stop/But it all went down so quick/You were afraid there was something you missed”. It would be funny, if the whole thing wasn’t so utterly lamentable. The lyrics – oh, the lyrics – throughout this record are sleazy, classless, unfunny, bereft of any charm, heartless, synthetic, trite, knuckleheaded…I could go on. I mean, POP ETC begin the R’n’B of ‘Live It Up’ with an “aaaoow, right there” that Prince wouldn’t touch for fear of sounding utterly sexist, and then hit the nadir on ‘R.Y.B.’ when the chorus chimes with the romantic “So, rock your body quick and get up”. Final track ‘Yoyo’, which does have a certain Stargate fun around it, is ruined by a spoken-word bridge, with Chu breathily intoning “I know this kind of love don’t last forever/We had a good time for a while/I had a good time… I’m just tryin’ to live it up”. You’d think it was a cunning parody of the pop music you hear every time you switch on the radio, if Chu wasn’t so insistent all this is for real.
In interviews promoting this record – and there’s been A LOT of interviews and articles and videos, just so we know The Morning Benders are no more: one awful, cringey YouTube video has Chu facing the camera explaining why he loves a list of songs from T-Pain to Taylor Swift – Chu has stated that what the band are doing as POP ETC is from the heart, and completely honest. I DON’T BELIEVE YOU. I think it’s fake, I think the source material – the songs that Chu rediscovered from his school days such as tracks by Boyz II Men – is more authentic, more from the heart, more real, and worst of all I’m now wondering if Big Echo was nothing more than a cynical move to take advantage of the Grizzly Bear sound that a lot of bands tried to ape following Yellow House.
I don’t think POP ETC have a clue who they are; this is reflected in the lyrics as Chu sings of wanting to “rock your body” and spend time “makin’ love” – it comes off as pastiche and lacks any sort of sincerity, almost mocking the music he claims to love and be influenced by. If you’re looking for a band that does pop music with heart and a knowing sense of the ridiculous, go listen to Maroon 5, or Fun or LMFAO: I’m not a fan of any of those but at least they’re not conning anyone by pretending to be something they’re not. As someone once said, ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?