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The Morning Benders - Big Echo

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Artist: The Morning Benders

Album: Big Echo

Label: Rough Trade

Review date: Mar. 8, 2010

For those internet rough riders out there, your first exposure to the Morning Benders was probably a live in-studio cut with the self-described Echo Chamber Orchestra. Head bender Christopher Chu explains the advance arrangement’s extra personnel for the pre-ordained triumphal anthem "Excuses" by going into his appreciation for Phil Spector and his wall of sound recording techniques. “He would just pile fifty people into the studio and just blow it out,” goes the introduction. “I thought it would be really cool to do that with our friends.” The result is certainly big: a kitchen cabinet session with the likes of Christopher Owens and John Vanderslice kicking around, while Chu conducts the highs and lows that swirl around him. It’s an exercise in geocentrism. With all the new meddling, "Excuses" takes on a life of its own that far surpasses the album version that opens up Big Echo.

It’s also a pretty disingenuous display. A malapropism at best, a needless namecheck at worst. There’s nothing all that Spector-ish about the sound. Sure, there’s lots of people, lots of instruments, but there’s no raw, overbearing force behind any of it. It’s all very carefully orchestrated. Nothing blows out at all. It all goes according to plan. Chu not only conducts the song, but the pseudo-event that he is constructing around him. “The celebration is held, photographs are taken, the occasion is widely reported,” goes Daniel Boorstin’s description of such happenings. And the occasion for the convening of the Echo Chamber Orchestra lines up pretty easily with this definition. Chu ably manufactures a visual and personal experience to match up perfectly with the manufactured sentiment of the song. Another aspirant to what Chris Weingarten so derisively referred to recently as "this whole ‘indie rock artist as IMPORTANT composer’ thing...Snake fuckin oil."

Harsh, but not without merit. Big Echo tries so hard for transcendence, it never gets out of the weeds. Anyone making the argument that pop music isn’t constructed or manipulative is a fool, but we tend to like a little wool over the eyes. No one wants their manipulation laid bare for all to see. Dancing around that nebulous concept of authenticity is ultimately what we’re talking about here, and the Morning Benders falter. Hard.

Don’t take this as condemnation for sounding similar. Formulas, and nostalgia, pays for a reason. The sin the Morning Benders are guilty of slipping into is akin to, though not as egregious, as the Dirty Projectors. These songs are ultimately undone by their ambition in an attempt to turn what could be pleasantly ephemeral fare into moment-defining anthems. Such Longstrethian self-importance plays out as just awkward quirk. Big Echo demands the kind of seriousness in indie-pop music that just isn’t there. The band hasn’t learned from their predecessors like Of Montreal, who embraced that quirk to the point of raucous self-parody, or the Unicorns, who saw how unsustainable it was and just kind of faded away.

This is also not to say that the record suffers from a trip too far down the looking glass. Quite the opposite. “Wet Cement” and “Pleasure Sighs” possess the obscene casualness of Vampire Weekend and Real Estate; “Hand Me Downs” the underhanded dread of the Walkmen; “Mason Jar,” the general wonkery of modern day Grizzly Bear; “Promises,” the same stock opening of every kid with an 808; a record cover with a geometric figure. They do step into something completely their own during “Cold War (Nice Clean Fight),” but for not even two minutes. Appropriately titled, I suppose, and cut down to size.

When people start talking about post-Merriweather Post Pavilion music (you laugh now, but just wait a couple years), the Morning Benders will be a first wave example par excellence. It is the very definition of popular music, according to Adorno: completely predigested. We’ve tasted better.

By Evan Hanlon

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