Hatchet Arts looks at California indie pop and a debut album from a power duo

“Big Echo”

The Morning Benders

Everything about this California-based band’s music is bright and sunny. Unfortunately, this tends to give The Morning Benders’ newest release, “Big Echo,” a one-note quality. The album starts off strong, with lush vocals and big, bold sounds, but about halfway through it devolves into a series of nondescript, nearly identical songs that struggle to hold your interest.

If every song on “Big Echo” was like the lead track “Excuses,” however, this would be a very different review. Written in ever-appealing 6-8 time, this song features soaring harmonies (masterfully laid down by singer Christopher Chu), shuffling percussion and an overall lively, happy demeanor. This is the kind of music the group makes at its best.

“Promises” is another solid track, with shifting time signatures and a catchy bridge. The fuzzy guitar line and soft bass bring to mind a lot of Grizzly Bear’s work; this isn’t surprising, since The Morning Benders have frequently drawn comparisons to that group, and Grizzly Bear’s bassist Chris Taylor helped produce the album.

“Wet Cement” and “Pleasure Sighs” are more mellow takes on the band’s cheerful, beach bum sound. The latter has a silky, delicate feel to it, as you might expect a “pleasure sigh” to have.

The group loses its creative edge from here, though; while songs like “Stitches,” “Mason Jar” and “All Day Day Light” are good, there’s nothing to set them apart from the tracks around them. They’re all mild, forgettable guitar lines and bare, boring vocals. The final track, “Sleepin In,” redeems the group somewhat; it’s a dreamy little tune with nice, tight harmonies. Still, “Big Echo” needs a big finish, one that does its first half justice.

“Broken Bells”

Broken Bells

At its heart, Broken Bells’ eponymous debut album sounds like a brand new Shins release. This is not a bad thing at all.

The brainchild of Shins’ frontman James Mercer and Brian ” DJ Danger Mouse” Burton, “Broken Bells” effectively combines, for the most part, the eerie vocals and creative instrumentation for which both acts are known. “The Ghost Inside,” for instance, has an addictive groove that grabs you from the song’s opening notes, and Mercer sings in a falsetto not immediately recognizable. “Vaporize” makes use of funky Hammond organ and brass lines, and “Sailing To Nowhere” is a weirdly indulgent tune that sounds like a mini symphony, changing its sound and mood while keeping the same melodic thread; it’s a true result of collaboration.

There are times, however, when Mercer’s influence comes on strong, giving certain tracks an overwhelmingly Shins-esque feel. “The High Road “has a slow, poetic outro chorus (“It’s too late to change your mind/You let loss be your guide”) that could have easily found its way into a track on “Wincing The Night Away.” Likewise, “Your Head Is On Fire” is a mellow, dreamy track that is classic Shins.

This tendency to invoke Mercer’s other group only benefits the album: that sound is great, and it doesn’t matter on which album it appears. Let’s hope the Burton-Mercer partnership lasts well beyond “Broken Bells.”

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