You might be aware in the periphery of your vision, that Breaking Dawn: Part II was released last month, with a soundtrack in tow. If, by chance, your hand slipped and you ended up checking it out, you might have been pleasantly surprised by track seven, Speak Up, new from Pop Etc, a melodramatic acoustic-infused pop song with emphasis on the mellow.
For followers of the band, it might resemble something of a return to their former guise as college-rock enthusiasts The Morning Benders. For one, the video includes lead singer Chris Chu holding a guitar, as opposed to a lone microphone, and doing some good old-fashioned Morning Benders-style facial crooning. The track was debuted for La Blogotheque way back in 2010, prior to the band’s change of name and direction, and so the song-writing has much the same flavour as some of their Big Echo era fuzz. What’s more, the lyrics are shrouded in a poetic haze: the meaning is not clear; the sentiment is hidden beneath metaphor.
It might, then, seem to be quite a contrast to the material released on this year’s self-titled album. On the album, many of Chu’s lyrics are literal and seemingly unpoetic: “I was gonna ask you to be my wife, I was gonna ask you to share my life”, runs Why’d You Do It Honey, a brooding track centred on betrayal and loss. Instead of treating the theme with an artist’s brush, dressing it up with conceit and simile, Chu is more inclined towards a straight-forward narrative; a classic characteristic of the r’n’b genre from which the band now draw many of their influences.
It’s an album that appears at first to be sickeningly sugar-sweet and shallow, and it is this that has attracted some mixed reactions from fans. The knee-jerk reaction is to lament the passing of the sumptuous, melodious feast that was 2010’s Big Echo, with its Phil Spector sized peaks and troughs, and to denigrate the new album as one-dimensional in comparison.
A closer look, though, reveals a musical dexterity to the new material that demonstrates continuing quality from the band. The production on Live It Up is liquid and fresh, with a reverberating synth melody on the chorus that cuts across Chu’s vocal melody perfectly. Julian Harmon’s drum line is fluid and laid back, bringing to mind the low-pressure rhythms of Bonobo or Air that punctuated the late ‘90s and early 00’s. Back To Your Heart is unashamedly light, but it’s celebratory, euphoric hook is more than deserving of some decent speakers, and C-O-M-M-U-N-I-C-A-T-E has a vibe so ‘80s it makes your ears wiggle.
So you can say what you like about Pop Etc, but no one can accuse them of apathy. This year’s eponymous release is passionate and well spirited, featuring some perilously catchy pop songs. At a time when so much of the alternative music scene is hinged on enigma, it’s refreshing to have a band like Pop Etc championing truth and sincerity in music. Since 2010 they’ve replaced fuzz with clarity, and wordplay with sincerity. Though it’s perfectly understandable to reference the back catalogue, Pop Etc’s new work should be judged on its own terms. If so, it was clearly a highlight of 2012.
Words: Francis Blagburn, Oxford, UK