Photograph by Pieter van Hattem
BEACH BOYS: (Left to right) Christopher Chu, Julian Harmon, Jonathan Chu and Timothy Or of the Morning Benders combine painstaking arrangements with a laid-back Golden State vibe.
The Form Abides
Whoever says the album is dead hasn't listened to the Morning Benders' latest release
By Paul M. Davis
ONE OF the truisms of the Internet era is that the traditional album is dead: thanks to iTunes, piracy and MP3 blogs, we've become a singles-crazed culture without the patience for a sustained 60-minute listening experience. Sales figures bear this theory out. Nevertheless, many artists continue to quixotically advocate for the album form, presenting cohesive sets of songs that can only be truly appreciated as a whole.The Morning Benders' Big Echo is one of the year's most persuasive arguments for the continued relevance of the album form. An ambitious collection of thunderous indie rock, contemplative folk and ambient soundscapes that would sit comfortably with many '70s-era album-length song suites, Big Echo is every bit as immense and resonant as the album title suggests. The Bay Area four-piece has more than eclipsed the modest expectations set by its promising-yet-slight debut Talking Through Tin Cans and turned in one of the year's most realized statements of purpose.
While Big Echo feels like a cohesive whole, singer/songwriter Chris Chu wrote the album through a painstaking, piecemeal process. What sounds ambitious on the record was in reality carefully wrought of modest constitutive parts. "When the songs were first written for Big Echo we knew we were going to have to open up our sonic palette and try a lot of new approaches," says Chu. "It's always about serving the songs. Making sure the songs are treated correctly and given the proper arrangements to let them speak as clearly and powerful as possible." As a result, disparate songs take on the sweep of a tightly arranged song cycle. "When you approach it in this way it's not really about being ambitious or sprawling," Chu says, "it's just about doing what's appropriate."
While the album shares many sonic touchstones with similarly ambitious '70s classic rock song cycles, Chu drew upon his encyclopedic knowledge of rock and pop that dates back as far as the '50s while composing the songs for Big Echo. "We definitely love the '70s, but I wouldn't attach any more importance to it than any other time period," says Chu. "Big Echo was all about taking pop music from all eras, the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80, '90s, etc., and seeing what they sounded like when all mixed together."
Despite having been born from a painstaking approach to arrangement that in less skilled hands could have been suffocating, Big Echo is effortless and breezy, a testament to the band's California provenance. "I do think we have something of a Californian approach to making music," Chu says. "We tend not to overthink things, or plan too much. We like to make our time in the studio as laid-back as possible, and just let things happen."
That tension between a laid-back California sensibility and obsessively wrought arrangements makes for a compelling listen. Layered multipart vocal harmonies buffer interstellar folk jams, which give way to thunderous drum breaks and resonant distorted guitar chords. Taken as a whole, Big Echo offers a sprawling excess of riches that is stunning in its dynamism.
And while sales figures may point the way to a future in which the album form is solely the domain of obsessives and completists, as long as there remain songwriters such as Chu who value the form, it will never go extinct. "The Internet is probably destroying the album," says Chu, "but I think there will always be people out there, like me, that love the album format. I want to continue to make music for those people." Not that the Morning Benders are content living in the past. "We can still participate in, or even embrace what's going on in the digital music age by releasing MP3s and things, but we will never release a couple singles with eight tracks of filler to make an album. We love albums too much to do that."
THE MORNING BENDERS
Friday, Oct. 15, 8pm; Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz.
Tickets $12 advance/$15 door; 831.423.8209 or www.riotheatre.com.
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