POP ETC are one of those bands that have never quite made it. They’ve been on the verge of bigger success for years, but still haven’t crossed over, and not for lack of trying. The band (formally The Morning Benders) certainly show perseverance, having endured a name change in 2012 (apparently they were uncomfortable with the homophobic connotations of “bender” in British slang), and being about to release their fourth studio album, having also put out seven EPs. They have also obviously got luck, as the list of bands they’ve toured with demonstrates: Broken Bells, Grizzly Bear, The Kooks, Death Cab for Cutie, MGMT, and The Black Keys. The release of Souvenir really begs the question; what quality is holing POP ETC back?
The band’s previous releases each seem like products distinctly of their time, and Souvenir is much the same. Their debut Talking Through Tin Cans was jangly guitar-pop, and whilst catchy, it was very much of a piece with the in vogue indie music of the time. Big Echo (still their strongest work to date) took a big influence from aforementioned tour-mates Grizzly Bear, and their brand of sunny psychedelia suited the band well. It wasn’t a particularly original album, but it had some lovely textures and sweet melodies. Their rebrand in 2012 saw them shift into a poppier sound more befitting of their new title. POP ETC – the album – was interesting, with some abrasive synth patches and guitars, but it lacked the melodicism to hold it together. As such, it was kind of a non-event, and it’s currently the band’s only album without its own Wikipedia page.
Souvenir sees the band doubling down on the pop element of their sound, sanding away any rough or difficult edges, and trying to write a series of bombastic, capital-P Pop songs. Sonically, it is a good demonstration of the increasingly vague nature of “indie pop”. Riding a fine line between Passion Pit and Taylor Swift, there are lots of different influences at play here. The guitars of What Am I Becoming sound very processed and cheesy, but in a way that’s pleasing to the ear. Running In Circles has a techno beat that almost recalls The Knife, and it’s a good example of a more defined sound that the band would be wise to chase. Chris Chu’s big vocal hook sounds fun and retro instead of overblown, among the more subtle arrangement. The hooks are the biggest issue with the album, in that they just don’t stick in the brain the way great pop songs do. Compared to their contemporaries who make albums entirely of gems, POP ETC seem to struggle just to make one or two.
The most interesting song on the album is I Wanted To Change The World But The World Changed Me. Its lilting guitar line seems inspired by Rihanna’s Rehab, but the chorus could be out of any big Max Martin hit from the last few years. What makes it unique is just how aggressively melancholic and bitter the lyrics are: “I used to chase after something, now I just shuffle my feet”. The malaise of age is an odd concept to express through a pop anthem, but the widescreen spectacle of the song just brings the angst of the lyrics into sharper focus. It’s a fascinating song, but it serves as an strange microcosm for the album as a whole. Souvenir very much feels like a work by a band that has given up their pretence of uniqueness, and tried to dive into the mainstream. Unfortunately POP ETC just don’t have the hook-writing chops to stick the landing.