Recording information: Doctor Wu's; Headphone Cave; Strange Weather; Virtue And Vice Studios.
The second POP ETC album by three members of the defunct Morning Benders holds true to the project's rebranded poppier sound and songs while injecting the tone with a boost of sobriety. The perceivable weariness could be at least partly a result of the process of making Souvenir, whose title references the four-year span between albums during which leader Chris Chu has said they recorded "hundreds" of songs before settling on a complexion. Gone or at least significantly lessened (thankfully, always) is the distracting Auto-Tune from their eponymous debut. However, from the opening singalong woh-oh-ohs, big hooks and slick production are still at the table with generous servings of delay befitting the album's arena-sized tunes. There's a weightier, more sincere-sounding vibe on the whole, though, not coincidentally reflected in titles like "Beating My Head Against the Wall" and "Backwards World." The particularly melancholy "Running in Circles" itself circles the mourning of a relationship that wouldn't move forward ("Now I'm running in circles without you"). Among more musically uplifting if still tonally sighing tracks -- like the distortion-prancing "What Am I Becoming?" ("I've been running so long, these shadows start to feel like home") -- "I'm Only Dreaming" closes the album on a despondent, R&B-infused ballad. Whether the more serious mood is seen as an improvement or not depends on preference, as the effect is still much the same: the production is still rousing, the songs still bob heads with steadily marching drums, and while the album feels more mature, it's not intimate enough to let us really feel more understood. Still, the somewhat unsettled, contemplative brightness is consistent, and those drawn to a sample will likely be pleased with the rest. Overall, POP ETC seem to be still finding their way here, but that in itself could strike a chord. ~ Marcy Donelson