Sometimes the simple act of changing their name can have career altering consequences for a band. Hands up if anyone remembers Seymour, or On A Friday, who later blossomed as Blur and Radiohead? Conversely, a name change can have a negative effect. Suede’s chances of real success in the US were stymied by being lumbered with calling themselves The London Suede for legal reasons.
San Francisco’s The Morning Benders are the latest to change their name due to some rather unfortunate connotations in the UK, including, bizarrely, some genuine press questions wondering if it is a reference to a running in-joke on UK sitcom The Inbetweeners. The name the band, now slimmed down to a three piece following the departure of bassist Tim Or, have gone for is a bold statement signalling a drastic stylistic reinvention. Pop Etc is a suitable moniker for a band whose self-titled debut aims squarely for the pop jugular.
The album cover is a bold print list of musical genres going from rock to house and psych RnB. The inference is that Pop Etc’s sound covers all aspects of pop’s Technicolor range. This magpie-like spirit of taking bits and pieces from different genres and sounds makes the album a rather disjointed affair, and the quality of the songs veers markedly from the great via the forgettable to the plain old annoying.
New Life is a promising opener. The stuttering beat and gauzy, hazy synths are very much of the moment with singer Chris Chu’s pleasing falsetto sounding particularly lovely. The track introduces the album’s overriding theme of love and relationships. While Pop Etc certainly know their way about an RnB style pop melody they are severely let down by lyrics that become increasingly hackneyed and clichéd. On New Life Cho plaintively pleads, “If I could give it all back for just one more day with you.” This is just the first of a number of platitudes throughout the album.
Pop Etc resemble a number of ostensibly alternative American pop acts. There are strong echoes of Foster The People and Passion Pit. However, the most obvious comparison is the diluted dance pop of Maroon 5. Pop Etc are not as insipid, but it’s never entirely clear whether they are being entirely heartfelt or honest or if the whole thing is a construct to satire contemporary pop. Auto-Tune and big synth sounds feature prominently throughout; two very current trends. But Maroon 5′s mega hit Moves Like Jagger is an undeniably brilliant dance pop song that is knowingly utterly ridiculous; Pop Etc appear to lack that realisation, and their attempts at overt sexualised dance pop seem rather sleazy and ham-fisted. Many of the songs on the second half of the album are nothing more than witless party tracks coated in an indie lo-fi finish. The effect is something akin to an indier LMFAO. The formulaic R.Y.B., with its lyrical hook of “Rock your body quick and get up”, is a real nadir.
There are, fortunately, moments when Pop Etc pop melange works well. Live It Up is an easygoing swing and Keep It For Your Own’s piercing strings and keyboard hooks are an example of the inventive undercurrent that runs beneath. It is in these tracks that the influence of Danger Mouse, who had a hand producing the album, can best be heard.
If you are going to call yourselves Pop Etc, you need at least one stone cold standout hit. Final track YoYo is their outstanding candidate. A dance pop track that sounds like it could soundtrack a summer spent partying on exotic beaches, it is derivative and generic but nevertheless extremely effective.
It’s unclear whether Pop Etc have branded themselves as an out and out dance pop band, or if they remain an alternative, slightly niche group, masquerading as a clichéd pop group. Their debut does little to answer that question.