Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Big Echo

When I first got myself all excited about the new Morning Benders album, I had heard only one song, “Promises.” I just immediately loved the start/stop rhythm, the interstitial beer bottle percussion, the breathy verse vocals, the sudden belting of the chorus. I loved the dense layering of sounds. All of that. I loved.

To be perfectly candid, I was not so automatically sold on the rest of the album when I first heard it. I’ve come around now, but initially this record didn’t always make sense to me. The songs here are very Pop; they’re plainly solid & satisfying, yes, but the production choices are not obvious ones. & so at first I was confused. See, there’s real subtlety and complexity to Big Echo; this album wants repeated listens. & it dispenses its rewards patiently.

First, the Morning Benders are having like a crush on 1960's Phil Spector. You’ll get right away that this is a wall-of-sound-type of production: the instrumentation is piled on baroquely, there’s enormous reverb throughout (hence the name, right?). Not to suggest that this is a historical re-enactment project (see, e.g.,
Gigi). No, this is a new thing all its own.

Significantly, the hierarchy of sounds in the mix here is dynamic, not static. Meaning: usually when you listen to a song, you’re basically instructed by the mix what to hear as foreground & what’s supposed to be background. There are “lead” instrument(s) placed in relief, & then other, “supporting” elements more or less behind & underneath. Probably too often, those production choices are driven by convention. i.e., You typically expect to hear the vocal out front & the bass behind &, by golly, that’s what you usually get fed.

Not so, here. On Big Echo, that hierarchy is a fluid thing. You don’t always get to settle in lazily & hear these songs the way you think you oughtta. bc the M. Benders feel strongly that what needs to be at the forefront of your attention right now might be, e.g., the rattling, reverbed tambourine jinglers (“Pleasure Sighs” @ ~1:07), or the swizzling ride cymbal (“Mason Jar” @ ~2:10), or even just a handful or two of disembodied distortion fuzz (like, all over). Meanwhile, the expected “lead” instruments (e.g., the guitar, the voice) wander in & out of the foreground, following an aesthetic logic that is sure-handed but unapologetic to (y)our expectations.

For any number of bands, this approach to the recording & production would be all
de rigeur, right? I mean, if a band telegraphs itself as capital-E Experimental, then we know in advance to expect the unexpected. Our minds are open before we even press Play. But where, as here, the song-writing is so Poppy-peppy, we might anticipate easing into something more conventional. Well, I did anyway. & so I found myself a bit at sea, at first. Yet it was the ineffable charm of the songs themselves that kept me coming back for more listens. & now that I’ve spent some time with it, I am genuinely a fan of the Morning Benders, and of this fascinating album.

Big Echo
comes out officially on March 9, & I think buying it is a very good idea. For the next few days though, you can stream the whole album right here:

The Morning Benders are a local band, if you didn't know. They are touring nationally even as we speak, & will stop in to play the Independent on March 30. Meanwhile, you can always check them out here.

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