By Jason Shoff
What’s in a name? That’s a question that’s had a major impact on the career of Brooklyn-based indie rockers POP ETC. Originally performing under the moniker of The Morning Benders, singer-songwriter Chris Cu and company were really beginning to make a name for themselves when Big Echo was released to critical acclaim in 2010. Not only did it lead to tours opening for such renowned acts as Broken Bells and The Black Keys, but it even received “Best New Music” from Pitchfork, a stamp of approval for the indie music scene if there ever was one. By all accounts, it seemed like they truly had the potential and the ingredients to break out and become the next big thing.
That is, until they ran into that problem of their name meaning something totally different in another country, mainly a derogative slur for being gay in the United Kingdom. And since this is too big of a market to ignore (and as an up and coming band, you really don’t want to risk offending anyone), they decided to make a change. Enter POP ETC, an incredibly underwhelming name that received audible groans from every website I read at the time when it was announced. Sounding like either a second-rate music blog or the name of a songwriting company co-founded by Max Martin, it also didn’t help that their self-titled 2012 release went to an abrupt change of direction in which they became some sort of wannabe synth-pop/R&B band. Some pretty scathing reviews followed, and what was once a promising band on the rise suddenly came to an abrupt, screeching halt.
So after making a decision that drastically altered the course of their history, where does the band go from here? Well after listening to their latest release, Souvenir, it seems that they’ve chosen to dig their heels in deeper and double down on their pure pop sound, with some decidedly mixed results. Things do, however, start off strong with “Please, Don’t Forget Me,” an uber-anthemic track that sounds like their attempt at giving Arcade Fire a run for their money, or perhaps one that could compete to be the main song for NBC’s 2016 Summer Olympics coverage. “Vice,” by comparison, is slinkier, mixing the vibe of ‘80s U2 with the vintage Miami club music that its name would suggest.
After two club-ready tracks, Souvenir then heads into more guitar-driven territory with “I Wanted to Change the World But the World Changed Me.” Though it does have a mouthful of a title and a somewhat cliché vinyl crackle opening, it’s the most natural sounding track here in the sense that the melody and chorus hook just seem to flow together, sounding like something Ryan Tedder could write in his sleep. But then it’s immediately back into the nightlife with “Running in Circles,” its intro sounding like a total re-write of 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This” and its beat sounding like something I heard at Valley Bar’s ‘80s Dance Night between Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys.
The main problem with this album, though, is that it just sounds like POP ETC are trying to play a game ‘80s dress up, trying on different sounds of the decade to see if they fit. As a question that Chu probably asks himself a few times in his career, “What Am I Becoming?” sounds like his attempt to craft a “banger,” though all the digital distortion and icy synths do is smother its groove. “Backwards World” has the potential to be a pretty catchy modern pop tune, but its excessive instrumentation only serves to bury its melody. And songs like “Beating My Head Against the Wall” and “Bad Break” sound like the band found a bunch of vintage synths and decided to squeeze in as many of their ‘80s sounds and effects as possible. All this does, though, is suffocate songs that would sound infinitely better if they had some room to breathe. At the end of the day, it seems that Chris Cu had two basic qualifications for Souvenir’s tracks: they all must have towering, epic choruses; and they all must be dance-floor ready. They achieve this with varying degrees of success, though they tend to miss the mark more often than not. While not a horrible album by any means, Souvenir is an album that finds POP ETC mining a direction that just feels inorganic, as if they’re trying too hard to shoehorn themselves into a sound that’s just not the right fit for them. Here’s hoping that they decide to just be themselves on their next album, because they clearly have the songwriting chops to craft something much more memorable than the ‘80s filler found here.