Talking ’bout pop

Pub date April 30, 2008
WriterTodd Lavoie
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Ah, to be young and in love. Or out of love, for that matter. Or maybe even charting the leaps and wobbles of the heart up and down the romantic continuum, wondering all the while if this romance thing ever gets any easier. The drama, the pure blazing surge and spark of it all. Every smile, every stumble, every stuttered confession and misinterpreted admission consumes the entire universe with its deafening acknowledgment of what you knew all along: each emotional episode between you and your special one is the most earth-shattering event in all of human history.

Therein lies the pulsing, burning, white-hot core of any good old-fashioned no-nonsense pop song. It’s no secret. Take a trawl through the annals of ear-sticking melodies and you’ll follow Cupid’s arrow, soaring in a straight line from the Brill Building to the Beatles all the way to Natalie Portman’s starry-eyed assertion, "The Shins will change your life," in Garden State (2004). Follow that arrow a bit further, and you’ll find your heart racing to the love-is-all indie-pop of Berkeley’s Morning Benders.

The Morning Benders, “Waiting for a War”

The quartet’s debut, Talking Through Tin Cans (+1), chronicles the highs and lows of young romance in exuberant three-minute bursts bubbling with guitar jangles and winsome harmonies. Largely indebted to the sunny sounds of 1960s songwriting, the Morning Benders craft teenage anthems dedicated to the giddy wonders and tongue-tied stammers of the heart. Recalling moments of the Shins and Sloan in its indebtedness to classic pop, Talking is a remarkably confident debut, especially for a bunch of guys barely in their 20s.

"It’s the stuff we were raised on," says vocalist-songwriter Chris Chu of the Phil Spector, Beach Boys, and Beatles references that appear so boyishly and exhilaratingly updated on Talking. Chu, along with drummer Julian Harmon, met me at the Mission District studio where the disc was recorded. Sitting across from me, both positively vibrate with youthful optimism and boundless enthusiasm, not just for their latest accomplishment but for music in general.

For all of their cheeky grins and waggish humor, this is a band that takes its work seriously: during the past two years, the Morning Benders self-released two EPs (2006’s Loose Change and 2007’s Boarded Doors) and played extensively in the Bay Area, opening for everyone from Yo La Tengo to MGMT. While Chu was rushing to finish his degree at the University of California at Berkeley — "school was getting in the way of what I really wanted to do," he confesses — he orchestrated a work/share arrangement with the studio, thus learning the ropes of engineering and production. It was time well spent, as evidenced by the Chu’s thoughtful reappropriation of the group’s beloved decade on Talking. Throw in the bonus of an upcoming nationwide tour as the openers for the Kooks, and we’ve got pretty compelling proof that the Morning Benders carry much more spark than their layabout moniker implies.

Speaking of sparks, Talking creates plenty of them, thanks largely to Chu’s impressive whisper-to-yelp acrobatics and Joe Ferrell’s frisky guitar work. "Loose Change," with its soaring, sweet-release cries of "Why can’t you say what you mean?" over Harmon’s and bassist Tom Or’s rumbling, tumbling rhythm, will surely connect with fans of the Shins, while the melancholic double-punch of "Wasted Time" and "Chasing a Ghost" bristle with guitar bluster worthy of Built to Spill. Mostly, though, the disc revels in the sweeping melodrama of young love with playful arrangements laden with tambourines, piano twinkles, and room-warming organ whirs.

"We were listening to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited [Columbia, 1965] a lot at the time," Harmon explains of the homage, and the addition lends tremendous intimacy to the confident cover with which Chu frequently masks vulnerable confessions. "Patient Patient," for example — a fetching doctor-prescribing-love metaphor sprung along by a boing-boing rhythm — pairs soulful Rhodes with earnest pleas of "All it takes is a little commitment / I’m a patient patient." Then there’s the elegantly understated "Crosseyed," a simple construction of strummed guitars and tambourine in which Chu ruefully observes that "our empty promises keep us from bearing our hearts" over the subtlest black-and-white-keyed sighs of agreement.

The kicker, of course, is being able to make all these admissions of weakness and fess-ups of lovesick anxiety connect with listeners — and the Morning Benders have done exactly that, having amassed a devoted following in relatively little time. Mercifully, with so much else in the world constantly in flux, there’s still comfort to be taken in tightly written, hook-loaded pop songs. And personally, I can think of few acts better prepared to provide the comforting than this outfit.


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2 Stockton, SF

(415) 397-4525

Also May 9, 9 p.m., call for price

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(415) 541-9574