An unassuming, doggedly likable record, the Morning Benders's 2008 debut, Talking Through Tin Cans, managed to balance frontman and principal songwriter Chris Chu's dead-on instincts for polished pop hooks with a garage-band sensibility. That laidback, ramshackle approach distinguished the band from the glut of Shins soundalikes on the indie-pop landscape. The Morning Benders's sophomore effort, Big Echo, underwhelms, then, because it strains to make the trio sound like countless other acts currently mining a retro-minded aesthetic for instant indie cred.
The most frequently cited point of comparison thus far has been to Grizzly Bear, which isn't an inaccurate comparison so much as a lazy one, given that Chris Taylor, bassist for Grizzly Bear, produced the record with a fussiness and density of sound similar to that of his own band. The heavy distortion on Big Echo, aside from drawing a giant flashing arrow back to the album's title, lest anyone miss such a sophisticated structural conceit, recalls the recent collaboration between David Lynch and Sparklehorse on Dark Night of the Soul and Beach House's Teen Dream, while Chu's melodies and his tenor both suggest Grandaddy's Jason Lytle.
As sources of inspiration go, a band could do far worse. But the album fails to use this already familiar point of view to explore any uncharted paths. Lead single "Excuses" boasts a terrific percussion line and layered harmony vocal, but it's far and away the best song on Big Echo. Taylor smothers the outsized melody of "Promises" beneath too much reverb, keeping what should have been a sing-along anthem from ever getting off the ground, since Chu has to shout to be heard over the sludgy, sloppy production. "Pleasure Sighs" barely registers as a song, cycling through a series of seemingly unrelated flourishes (including sleigh bells and a drum break) over the course of its drawn-out crescendo. Throw in a wordless chorus and it wouldn't be too far removed from Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody." Like that inexplicable hit, "Mason Jar" and "Sleeping In" both struggle to find a real pop hook and, instead, focus on building an enormous sound that too often suffocates the band's strengths.