Opening with a track called “New Life” signals the rebirth opportunity that this album is for POP ETC. Formerly known as The Morning Benders, the group changed their name due to an unfortunate connotation with a UK-based slur against the LBGT community. Debuting with a totally new name and a self-titled debut for it lets them both leave that misstep in the past and re-establish themselves with a new identity. It’s a shame, then, that rather than bursting forth with something new and unique, they wind up rehashing stale sounds and leaving the listener with an entirely unmemorable experience.
“New Life” is, in actuality, anything but a new life. The clusters of percussive synth, slightly Auto-Tuned vocals, and sun-faded synths linger and float like a cheesy teen drama soundtrack penned by a ’90s pop star. Chris Chu is not looking toward a new life, but constantly admitting that he’d give up anything to get back with a past love. Even worse, Chu moves into a spoken-word explanation of that relationship, talking about how he “was all alone,” but the delivery lazily falls flat, the mundane confessions of a guy you barely know telling you about his “interesting” relationship situation at a dull party. The song betrays its own mission statement, never moves beyond a loll, and won’t be remembered by the time the second track opens.
The bleeping synths, clip-clap rhythm, and (ugh, again?) Auto-Tuned vocals on “Live It Up” aim for summer jam, but never wake up from a long nap. “I ain’t never disrespect no woman/ never called a girl a ho,” Chu coos through the electric blahs, but the platitude smacks of desperation for attention more than it does an honest statement. The radio-friendliness of “R.Y.B.” is cranked to 13 (forget 11), but even here Chu and bandmates are attempting to put out some sort of ill-placed social message about the need to preserve the Earth. “I don’t own an SUV/ so don’t you judge me/ when I roll up on this Schwinn/ I ain’t guzzlin,” he croons like he’s about to change the world. But isn’t this song about rockin’ your body quick and partying “til the sun burns out”? These moments lack the subtlety to be both radio pop and informative, preachy knots in the middle of what is supposed to be a smooth party jam. Maybe they’re trying to make up for the by all accounts accidental slur in their last band name, but if so, it’s a mindless over-compensation.
Later tracks sound like Death Cab for Cutie pushed through an early ’90s pop mesh, wringing all of the interesting indie elements out of Gibbard & Co.’s electronics and quirky lyrics. The synths and “woo!” sample on “Back to Your Heart” sound cribbed from some pump-up mix in A.C. Slater’s tape deck. Cliched troubled relationship lines like “She said why do we bother/ I said I’m not your father” don’t help much either. The quick-step chorus may be one of the more memorable moments on the disc, but it’s buried in the midst of such yawn-inspiring pop that it’s not worth digging for. Similarly, “Keep It for Your Own” takes elements of Yeasayer (multi-part harmonies, yelping melodic lines, and electronic drums), but the formula never bends (let alone breaks), everything fitting together like giant puzzle pieces that obviously fit here or there. Once in a while, that easy, breezy fun is worthwhile (as on the lazy nod-along “Everything Is Gone”, with airy vocals and heavily reverbed piano), but more often than not, it leaves a gap rather than a moment.
Decidedly, these are tracks written more to make the crossover to pop radio than to please hardcore indie listeners. That said, the atmosphere is too low-slung, too laid-back and predictable to have much impact. These tracks are high sheen and little else. “Halfway to Heaven” comes across like a boy band slow-jam with somebody’s understanding of modern bleeps and bloops added over the top. As the bridge comes together, everything fades but some a cappella bass, and somebody turns on the T-Pain app to give some flavor to Chu’s voice, everything blandly sweet and done to death. Some of the songs on POP ETC certainly could make the crossover to pop radio, the hip new band that your teenage sibling wonders if you’ve heard of, but the disc crosses the trio so far over into that territory that they’ve left anything but the blithely unmemorable patches of the Top 40 behind.
Essential Tracks: “Back to Your Heart” and “Everything Is Gone”