When long-running indie unit the Morning Benders changed their name in early 2012, it was the last logical step in a series of changes that preceded it, having moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn, switched up their band membership, and -- as evidenced by their debut as POP ETC -- lost almost all of their indie rock and chamber pop leanings in favor of a stab at the kind of hyper-produced R&B-informed pop that defines early-2010s mainstream radio. The Morning Benders cycled through some pretty heavy borrowing phases, first from the Shins' gloomily romantic indie sound and later from Grizzly Bear's rustic acoustic orchestrations. The self-titled debut from POP ETC says goodbye to all that, salvaging only the most basic elements of bandleader Christopher Chu's songwriting sensibilities and switching out the melancholic rock forms of the past for Auto-Tuned vocals and minimal yet huge electronic beats. Working with producer Andrew Dawson (who has crafted hits for Lil Wayne and Kanye West, among others), POP ETC is a decided attempt at the most manicured pop album possible. From the opening notes of the appropriately titled first track, "New Life," POP ETC sound like they've been listening to the self-analyzing hip-hop of Drake and the-Dream more than any band within a hundred yards of Sub Pop Records. The song's icy synth bassline and detached vocal delivery looking over the ashes of a failed relationship seem cribbed from the kind of public meltdown diary entry beats that Kanye made his millions on, taking more from the pop and R&B elements than any direct hip-hop reappropriation. The dramatic shift in style isn't a failing for the album. When it seems genuine and inspired, the results are as fun and exciting as any of the better disposable ear candy of bands like Phoenix or Julian Casablancas' solo material. Upbeat party banger "Back to Your Heart" or the Danger Mouse-produced "Keep It for Your Own" blend Chu's gift for hooky harmonies with perfectly constructed arrangements and plenty of big-budget studio gloss. Elsewhere on the record this new look doesn't work out as well. Ranging from the trying-too-hard would-be dancefloor jam "R.Y.B." to the cringe-worthy falsettos and downright embarrassing on-tour hook-up lyrics of "Live It Up," the songs that don't work really don't work, and their insincere atmosphere makes even the production feel artless and put-on. There are more than a few slickly catchy moments on POP ETC, all the kind of melodies that sound great at the party and fade quickly by daylight. The heavy-handed approach to a new style ultimately kills most of the record's momentum. POP ETC's vie for commercial radio appeal ends up feeling like watching your little brother come home from his first year of college trying on an overexcited new style, complete with awkward slang and ill-fitting fashions.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas