Another, more summer-barbecue-friendly lifetime ago, Pop Etc was a band called The Morning Benders. The group turned heads with 2010’s Big Echo, a smart sophomore album full of moon-eyed melodies and guitar chords strummed for dear life. With its ramshackle production (courtesy of Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor) and laid-back sound, it offered nostalgic, familiar rock pleasures—not the stuff of trendsetting. Pop Etc is a step to the left: After a European tour brought the term “bender” to the band’s attention as derogatory slang overseas, the San Francisco act scrapped the name and the sound along with it.
Pop Etc leaves the guitars in the practice space, embracing an of-the-moment synthesizer-based sound that lands between the Drive soundtrack’s mellow textures and Justice’s self-explanatory “D.A.N.C.E.,” a tribute to Michael Jackson. The band plays with the King Of Pop’s sense of utility: It’s music to move to, or sometimes cry with. Singer Chris Chu takes on dual roles as a pursuant romantic and a tour-bus Casanova unruffled by his “main chick back at home.” With his rotating moody/carefree delivery and the occasional hip-hop quip, it’s emotional territory last explored by Drake. Chu and the band mostly pull it off, delivering a successfully silly ode to strings-free hook-ups on “Yoyo” and turning suitably forlorn on “C-O-M-M-U-N-I-C-A-T-E.” The group’s transition from axes to electronics sparks plenty of creativity, though its enthusiasm for the new toys doesn’t always transcend the material: “Keep It For Your Own” is a deflated “Pumped Up Kicks,” and the apocalyptic party scenario of “R.Y.B.” is too tongue-in-cheek to raise the stakes.
Still, the album’s a bold move for a band that had just gotten the ball rolling, and it should only boost its momentum. Though guitar-centric rock acts like The Black Keys have cried out against the genre’s recent move toward more synths, bleeps, and bloops, Pop Etc make a committed case for welcoming its promising new electronic overloads. “I just want to live it up now,” Chu sings on “Live It Up,” and Pop Etc does just that.