Big Echo sounds exactly how a band named The Morning Benders should sound. True to its title, the record is a hazy, zephyrean reverie that conjures the feeling of waking up after a night of heavy drinking, where every outside stimulus seems to meet your senses as if through a layer of gauze. But it’s not as though they’ve entirely abandoned the sunshine pop of debut album Talking Through Tin Cans. They’ve taken that aesthetic and spread it across a bigger canvass, one that allows for greater depth and abstraction.
Some people might give credit for this breakthrough to Grizzly Bear bassist Chris Taylor, who co-produced the album alongside chief songwriter Christopher Chu. And, indeed, Taylor’s distinctly ursine presence is evident, from the string and chime arrangements undergirding “Excuses” to the densely multitracked vocals throughout. But more importantly, there’s a sense that he helped these guys find a fitting vessel for the sound they’ve tried to create all along. Indeed, the album’s strength resides in more than just studio trickery; the songs themselves have been constructed with an openness that in fact allows the production to work its magic. The music thus moves in unpredictable ways, dissolving into a malt-shop doo-wop breakdowns on “Excuses” and tugging the listener upwards on a slow-crawl towards echo-drenched nirvana, as on “Stitches.”
“Hand Me Downs,” in particular, is the premiere example of how Big Echo’s production emphasizes the strengths of Chu’s compositions. The curt guitar thrusts played over the verses are treated with a crunchy distorting effect that trills off into an echo after each stab. It sets up a powerful contrast to the neater, more delicate two-part harmony of the chorus, while the steady march of the rhythm section courses beneath, knitting together the two contradictory elements.
And yet, while The Morning Benders navigate the unstable boundary between tried-and-true pop structure and spacey excursions, the songs fall apart when they lean too far in either direction. “Pleasure Sighs” is a bit laborious to get through and disintegrates one too many times into a Shondells-esque haze, while “Cold War (Nice Clean Fight)” backslides into ho-hum Shins territory. They’ve got a solid album here, but the last thing they’d want to do is get complacent. Remember, they’re not the only band stealing a sip from Brian Wilson’s drinking fountain. But if they could manage a few more songs like “Wet Cement” or “Sleeping In,” no one would argue that they haven’t earned their place there.