Popular music often succeeds to the extent that it seduces listeners into tapping their toes to a three-minute story about a universal human experience. In the case of an artiste like Gwen Stefani, that may just be the prolonged experience of learning how to spell "bananas." Listening to Berkeley-based quartet the Morning Benders, you're more likely to run down the stopwatch exploring a relationship's emotional ruins — pop style.
The band's forthcoming debut, Talking Through Tin Cans (released May 6), clearly draws influence from '60s pop heavyweights like the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Kinks, delivering earnest lyrics in succinct song structures. While Chris Chu, Morning Benders' singer-songwriter frontman, confirms his reverence for the aforementioned heavyweights, he hopes listeners will use them as a starting point rather than a means of categorization. "I'm really conscious of what influences people assign to us," he says, taking a break at Different Fur, the Mission studio where the band recorded Talking. "I love the Beatles — they're probably the greatest band ever — but still, I hope people will explore our work for themselves."
Fortunately, Talking Through Tin Cans has its own emotionally resonant merit. The title reveals the overriding theme of the flawed, crude nature of human communication, and each song pays tribute to all of the confusion that implies. The album opens with "Damnit Anna," a two-minute song of conflict and frustration set to jangling acoustic guitar, tambourine hits, high piano flourishes, and kicky drum lines. "Damnit, Anna, don't look at me that way," Chu sings. "You know very well what you did that day." What the object of the singer's distress specifically did to merit such accusations remains a mystery, but a breach of trust is suggested in lyrics like "Damnit, Anna, can't you look me in the eyes?" and "You already paid the price for losing me." The catchy opening track succeeds in striking the fundamental chord of misunderstanding that holds throughout Talking as a whole.
This talent for expressing the familiar aspects of damaged relationships is something the Morning Benders learned (and continue to learn) from their major influences. "I think from the songwriting perspective, the people I really like are the most genuine, honest ones," Chu says. "I like John Lennon more than Paul McCartney. Neil Young, Dylan — they all have a really straightforward quality to them, and that comes through in their lyrics." That essential candidness informs the Benders' debut, creating especially poignant moments toward its battered denouement. After the bittersweet but hopeful pop triumph of "Waiting for a War," listeners find themselves treated to a narrator who, in the space of 20 minutes, has metamorphosed from wounded but witty to defeated, cynical, and devastated. "Boarded Doors" kicks off this jaded final stretch with a tersely strummed electric guitar that expresses all of the appropriate exasperation. "When you find out everything you're looking for/All that's left is an empty house with a boarded door," Chu sings, suggesting extensive analysis is meaningless in this vacant shell of human misconnection. "I don't know where else I'll go," he sings, closing on a point of jilted uncertainty. "It's out of the warm and into the snow."
Learning from the pop soothsayerswho came before them, the Morning Benders approach time-tested songwriting techniques with fresh ears. As a result, they have created their own timely variation on the themes of flawed flings and their violent emotional aftermaths.