Of the many albums that have come out in my years as a music blogger, there are a choice few that really stand out as excellent albums and one of my favorites, the one that I will start with, is Big Echo by The Morning Benders.
It’s strange to realize that the album, or LP (whichever suits your preference) has once again taken a back seat to the single. Thanks to the internet’s ability to grant us instant gratification, most listeners no longer have the patience to sit through an album. iTunes and other per-MP3 vendors are in part responsible for this, as it’s a much cheaper deal to buy a single song for a dollar than a whole album for 10 or more.
But what of the exceptions? The listeners who do still crave a full album experience? It’s for them that I chose Big Echo, an album whose first 4 tracks are absolutely stellar as stand alone numbers, while the remaining tracks work more as a cohesive unit, one that rewards repeated listens.
First things first: The Morning Benders area band out of the Berkeley area of California who hit the scene in 2008 with a roots rock debut called Talking Through Tin Cans. It was an album dominated by simple no-frills production and quick hooks on the likes of “Damnit Anna” and “Waiting For A War,” and the overall effect was one of a 60’s pop production with most numbers shy from straying over the 3:00 mark. Their talent for good old fashioned melody was evident, but nothing on the album registered beyond the point of simple enjoyment.
A Bedroom Covers LP later (an album which consisted of eclectic handpicked tracks ranging from the 50’s-90’s, produced in a bedroom) The Morning Benders’ second album, Big Echo, emerged out of nowhere in March 2010, an inauspicious release date. In fact, Big Echo’s largest marketing campaign was in viral form: a beautiful live version of the lead track “Excuses” done by the LaBlogotheque-esque music blog Yrs Truly.
Big Echo starts with the aforementioned “Excuses,” a song that band leader Chris Chu indebted to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production. He pulls it off beautifully: from the scratching of vinyl intro to the smoldering tympanis and piano flourishes to the bombastic transformation into a classic 50’s chord progression with occasional Etta James “At Last” violin to the bittersweet vocals coming full circle about a past relationship. The bridge is a awe-striking vocal round that builds into a crescendo from all sides that takes the song to its swirling finish.
The second track, "Promises,“ probably owes the most to the album’s co-producer, Chris Taylor (of the band Grizzly Bear). With its shimmering production and vocal harmonies and its dynamic changes of tempo, it’s not a long stretch to compare "Promises” to Grizzly Bear’s hit “Two Weeks. It’s to the Morning Benders credit that they don’t sound derivative, thanks in part to Chris Chu taking a clever approach to his vocals by layering a low and high octave together.
Meanwhile track 3, "Wet Cement,” takes the album into a slower turn. It’s a beautiful bass-driven number with compressed piano and slow-strum plucked guitar chords, and it finds Chris Chu in his high falsetto. The track has an utterly hypnotic feel with great meandering guitar leads that could have come out of Paul McCartney’s Ram. Certainly, it’s an album highlight.
“Cold War” fits the instant gratification mold, a radio ready single that comes in just under the 2:00 mark and features a chord progression that grabs you from the start. But the track is really a testament to the Benders’ focus on production with booming tympani work and a golden acoustic guitar sound, highlighted by glockenspiel. It’s one of those perfect summery over-too-soon numbers that bears up to looping.
Track 5, “Pleasure Sighs,” is a departure from its predecessors. With its slow pace and hypnotic vocal and guitar interplay, it’s a number equally fitting to the dreamy sounds of Dark Side of the Moon and the late 60’s psychedelia of Abbey Road, a grandiose epic number that completely changes the direction of the album.
Track 6, “Hand Me Downs,” starts out with an utterly creepy twinkling of pianos before a rhythmic propulsion of drums and guitars take over. Here is where you notice the great drum-work that has been the framework behind every song. Drummer Julian Harmon isn’t exactly on the tip of the tongues of those who rank great modern drummers, but he should be. “Hand Me Downs” has its hands full of sonic tricks, from layered vocals to hard hitting guitars drifting off into reverbial bliss and Chris Chu alternating his vocals from aggressive to ethereal.
Track 7, “Mason Jar,” once again picks up the trippy Dark Side of The Moon vibe, though this time with more of a Radiohead meld, via a cleanly picked guitar line paired with an eerie backdrop of rising and falling synths. Spot-on instrumentation adds to the song’s prickly texture.
Track 8, “All Day Day Light,” serves almost as a respite from the heavy songs that followed “Cold War.” It’s the most by-the-numbers type of rocker that you’ll find on the album, and wakes up the listener with its bright guitar work, reverbed handclaps and upbeat drums
Track 9, “Stitches,” may be the most unheralded song on the album, and the most deceptively beautiful. Its dynamics transition seamlessly from a whisper to a shout and completely surround the listener by the song’s finale
Big Echo’s final track,“Sleeping In,” isn’t your typical rock number. It’s built around more of Chu’s amazing vocal layering which I’d say is some of the most rewarding since The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
So Why Did I Chose Big Echo?
After discovering The Morning Benders from their first LP, it was hard for me to imagine that their sound would evolve so dramatically without any typical sophmore slump drop-off. Ye,t as different as the two albums sound, Big Echo maintains the melodic hooks that were so promising on Talking Through Tin Cans and expands on them, with production that continues to fascinate after repeated listens.
The overral cohesiveness of an album, not just thematically, but sonically, plays an important and undervalued role in today’s music. The Beatles were more aware than most in what separates the good from the great. Not only can one identify a Beatles’ number almost immediately, but also the album that it belongs on and the sequence surrounding it. This sense of place is really what should define an album and The Morning Benders pull it off in spades.
To their credit, while each track is related to its brothers, Big Echo’s production is never repetitive. Instead, we’re invited into the world of each individual song, from the bittersweet “Excuses” to the explosive pop of “Cold War” all the way to the mesmerizing vocals of “Sleeping In” without forgetting the importance of melody throughout.
Content too is important, and while Big Echo has the overarching theme of the rise and fall of relationships, it’s done in a rather abstract and refreshing way, with deceptively simple lines that range from outright sexual (“You tried to taste me/And I took my tongue to the southern tip of your body”) to cynical (“Stuck in a mason jar/ where I sealed up my heart/I take it out once a week/ to donate to charity”) to cleverly allegorical (“Cold War” refers to the narrator’s wish to keep a lovers’ quarrel from getting out of hand). At 10 songs, Big Echo’s brevity (clocking in at a little under 40 minutes) allowed me to come back again and again, without feeling the need to skip around songs and both it’s title and artwork draw a parallel to the music.
And yet most importantly, The Morning Benders seem content to challenge themselves, they could have easily gotten away with another Talking Through Tin Cans soundalike, but their progress has proven that they are an exciting band to follow in the years to come. To me, Big Echo is a modern day Pet Sounds where the overall melodic structure won me over and at no time did the “pocket symphony” production drive me away. Chris Chu and company have produced an album that builds upon the past as well as moves towards the future.
Production Values: 5/5
Repeated Listening: 5/5
Overall score: 9.2/10