From Phil Spector to The Beatles, taking simple lyrics and adding sonic complexity below has been a formula for success. The wall of sound, a hodgepodge of washed out guitars, strings, horns and countless other forms of aural amusement, empowers bands to communicate triumphs and tribulations galore. Berkeley’s The Morning Benders, with the help of co-producer and Grizzly Bear member Chris Taylor, tinker with this concept and, to a degree, they succeed. A few songs on their sophomore full-length effort, Big Echo, transform sorrow to destruction and uplift to ecstasy. But despite moments of brilliance on their new album, as a whole their sound remains a tad unfocused, leaving some room for improvement.
Reaching emotional highs that some indie bands can only dream of during the course of their first two tracks, “Excuses” and “Promises,” The Morning Benders assure their listeners that their songwriting and arrangement talent thrives. On “Excuses,” the exquisite combination of acoustic guitar and string textures with multiple sing-along melodies cooperate splendidly. Uttering the words “We’ll still be best friends when all turns to dust,” the gala of devotion leads the way with unapologetic disregard for naivety. It progresses gradually from a sweet and vulnerable croon to a trifling hum section reminiscent of “Holiday” by Weezer to a gently tied bow of harmonious vocal lines over ballad drums and celebratory strings.
On “Promises,” The Morning Benders call a new formula to arms. Groovy, laid-back guitar work provides a perfect backdrop for nonchalant vocals then together they crescendo into an energy filled hook. “They say it’s only natural... but I can’t help thinking we grew up too fast...” the lead vocalist suspects as the song marches into a straight rhythm burst of guitars, hymnlike background vocals and enormous reverb. “And I know that this won’t last a second longer than it has” he confesses over the sonic overdrive and then back to the smooth sailing of the verse and repeat.
The rest of the songs on the album are permutations of these first two songs but manifest themselves less convincingly. Highlights include the lazy lullaby-like final track, “Sleeping In,” the haunting “Mason Jar” and the rock n’ roll song “All Day Daylight.” All too many times, though, the band relies on highly reverb-driven guitars and tom fills to create similar soundscapes but lack the interesting song structures and melodies from the first two songs. However, the album as a whole stays enjoyable because of gleaming patches of brilliance throughout. With plenty of time to refine their sound and the resources of a fantastic independent record label at their disposal, The Morning Benders will undoubtedly remain a band to watch in the future.