The Morning Benders’ 2008 album, Talking Through Tin Cans, was common-and-garden indie pop. On Big Echo, co-producer Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear has helped lead The Benders into new, expansive territory through the addition of antiquated instrumentation, multi-layered harmonies and – as the title suggests – lots of reverb.
There’s one potential problem, though: it’s territory that’s already crowded with other bands. In re-styling themselves as practitioners of Beach Boys-indebted Americana, The Morning Benders now find themselves standing cheek by jowl alongside the likes of Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, Young Natives, Band Of Horses and – of course – Grizzly Bear.
So, Big Echo won’t amaze the listener with its individuality. But, no matter: this is a lovely record with a broad appeal. Its most immediate moments are found during Big Echo’s first half. Following a wrong-footing intro of vinyl crackle and mournful guitar, Excuses explodes into a sweeping, mellotron-assisted melody that would sound perfectly at home in a velvet-draped music hall. Promises moves expertly from its lurching, oddly funky verses to a massive, rousing chorus; the brisk Cold War is a tropical pop delight, while the shimmering Wet Cement would be the perfect musical accompaniment to a poolside cocktail.
The production throughout is masterly. These are ambitious arrangements with lots going on within them, but each instrument is allowed to exist in its own space, rather than coagulating into one big gloop. Christopher Chu’s voice sits comfortably in the middle of the mix and, while its preppy tones aren’t terribly distinctive, it’s ably supported by his bandmates’ exquisite harmonies.
The ‘Benders stretch themselves further on Big Echo’s more sprawling second half. Mason Jar and Stitches negotiate their way through long passages of serenity before building to big, crashing crescendos. But the album never loses its discipline: each of these 10 tracks possesses a sturdy tune as its backbone.
And that melodicism might be The Morning Benders’ trump card when it comes to standing out from the crowd. Unlike, say, Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, this isn’t a ‘difficult’ record that needs to be ‘broken in’ like a new pair of shoes; instead, like an old pair of slippers, Big Echo feels comfortable straight out of the box.
Big Echo won’t change the direction of modern music but it’s such an easy, pleasurable listen that it can’t fail to enrich whatever environment it’s played in. Unreservedly recommended.