When talking about the self-titled debut album from POP ETC, it’s almost essential to forget what you know and think you know about The Morning Benders. The storyline plays out as follows: upon learning that their band name was being used as a homophobic slur in the UK, The Morning Benders made the executive decision to change their name to POP ETC. With the name change came a lineup tweak and a move from San Francisco to Brooklyn. It’s close to the musical equivalent of gender reassignment or witness protection, and such radical adjustments also provide the opportunity to reinvent yourself however you like. The old Morning Benders liked guitars and indie pop. They wrote a super catchy song like “Excuses” that found placement in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial and on “Best of” lists back in 2010. They corralled their musician friends from San Francisco like John Vanderslice and members of Girls into a small studio to play a song or two for fun.
By contrast, POP ETC like synths and commercial pop music. They use AutoTune liberally and even apply it to a cover of Bjork’s “Unravel”. They release mixtapes titled “New Influences Weekend Mix” and “1986 Weekend Mix” full of artists like Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Tears for Fears and Boys II Men. The moving parts might be the same, but this is an entirely new model and should be regarded as such. Those still in denial need only listen to the appropriately titled opening track “New Life” on POP ETC’s new album to best understand the group’s aim. Synths warble next to drum machines, and singer Chris Chu mourns the death of a relationship through R&B flavored sentiments and AutoTune. Somewhere, the 808s & Heartbreak version of Kanye West can relate. Top 40 and Urban radio stations should be licking their chops over the sparkling Drake-like bounce of “Back to Your Heart,” if only the lyrics weren’t so cringe-worthy. “She said, ‘Why do we bother?’/and I said, ‘I’m not your father,'” is just one moment in the song that might make you wince. First single “Keep It For Your Own” is perhaps the best four minutes of pure pop on the entire album, where light bits of acoustic guitar, bass and piano actually support the verses, the hook in the chorus is strong, and all the vocals/harmonies haven’t been modulated. It’s the only track on the record produced by Danger Mouse, and considering how well it works, they might want to have him do the entire thing next time.
So much of the rest of the album feels like a blatant attempt at mainstream pop it can be almost disturbing at times. “R.Y.B.” stands for rock your body, and not only did Justin Timberlake do a song about that very topic that was a whole lot better, but it’s easy to get the impression that ‘NSYNC would probably pass on it too. That and closing track “Yoyo” are both obnoxiously loud too, as if the synths have been turned up to 11 to distract you from how utterly mediocre they are. The faux R&B seductions of “Live It Up” and “I Wanna Be Your Man” have decent melodies and even some impressive harmonies in them, but stumble and fall from downright painful lyrics. “I ain’t never disrespect no woman/never called a girl a ho,” Chu AutoTunes on “Live It Up,” a song about sleeping with groupies while on tour. The chorus of “I Wanna Be Your Man” is the song title repeated over and over and over again ad nauseum, to the point where if you play this song for a girl you’re trying to woo she’ll likely say yes by the halfway point so the begging doesn’t have to go on any longer. You could say POP ETC are trying as hard as they can to develop a relationship with as many people as possible on this album, beating you over the head with a sonic lead pipe until you finally come around to the idea that they’re a good band.
They’d fare far better with a touch of moderation, as songs like “Halfway to Heaven” and “Everything Is Gone” display. Unfortunately such moments are too few and far between to make much of a difference. One thing that does make a difference is how and where you listen to the album. Like a blockbuster action film, sometimes you need a good popcorn record to mindlessly enjoy for awhile. If you’re out on a deck with a cold beverage and a good book or are at a party with your friends, a little POP ETC can be quite nice. Don’t be too surprised if the band starts to pick up some mainstream success from this album either. I mean it IS better than Ke$ha. That last sentence probably tells you all you need to know. In an ideal world, the transition from The Morning Benders to POP ETC would have gone a lot smoother. Chris Chu has proven he can write smart and addictive pop songs with guitars, and it stands to reason he could do the same without them. Let’s hope that next time the band returns they learn from this misstep and come up with some music that’s truly worthy of their new name.
POP ETC – Everything Is Gone
POP ETC – Halfway to Heaven