Berkeley, California is a little nexus for great musicians and artists. It could be the wind from the Pacific Ocean, or that well-known university atmosphere, or maybe it's just one of those meeting places in the world to which geniuses of all sorts roll downhill. This said, you have to realize that not everything that comes out of Berkeley is worthy of art status. For every genius, there must be seven, eight, one hundred, or one thousand people who are average or lacking in any noticeable talent at all. The Morning Benders do not fall into this latter category, although they also fail to reach the same level as, say, The Grateful Dead on their first album, Talking Through Tin Cans.
The music on this debut is hook-heavy, melody laden, and pumped with jangle-rock power. I can hear early Shins without all the cloudy metaphors and confusing similes. It's like the Shins got Mason Jennings to write their lyrics, and the byproduct has strong music and strong words. "Damnit Anna" contains the razor-sharp perceptions of "after the relationship" blues. There's a bitterness that is carefully contained within the simple confines of a steady guitar and a humming choir. At the same time, you realize that the vocalist (Chris Chu) still cares about "Anna", despite all the bravado. "I Was Wrong" is a waltzing tune that has some unexpected pauses, twists, and turns. Again, there's that hint of bitterness that's covered by the sweetness of delivery. "Loose Change" rumbles under the radar until the bass overtakes the rhythm, the melody overtakes the bass, and the percussion overtakes the melody. In this order, the song continues, but this steady rising of various instrumental sections gives "Loose Change" a chaotic kaleidoscopic feel. The lyrics are perfectly aligned with this sense of chaos. "Why can't you just say what you need?" is the greatest single line in the whole song, and it sums up the tumult that can be caused by bad communication. "Patient Patient" is the only song that I've heard on the radio, and it's also the song that feels the most like Mason Jennings. Jennings has the tendency to make his vocals follow his melody, even when the lyrics fail to be a perfect fit. He stretches his syllables until the highs and the lows of the song are all in line, and this is what Chris Chu does on "Patient Patient". "Crosseyed" begins with the line "I tried to cross a bridge today, I tell you man there ain't no way to change...", and only grows as a song. The music stays basically contained by the same strumming, humming guitar, no symphonic highs and lows, but the lyrics achieve all the drama you could ever require. "Waiting For A War" is the crescendo, the climax of the album story where the protagonist is "finished" in many senses. There's a very Beatles-esque lyrical echo at the end of the song, but the exuberance of the music, the dissatisfaction and frustration that drives the guitar sends this song farther from "A Hard Day's Night" than anything else on the album. The whisper of "Heavy Hearts" is a strong juxtaposition, and an honest look at the eerie calm after the storm that was "Waiting For A War". We then find "Boarded Doors" which jumps back on the jangle-rock horse, and has a repeated riff and dramatic background "oohs" that make it superbly catchy. "Maybe you're right to stay in the light, but tell me please where does that leave me?" is the lyric that sets up the song for a guitar solo, but instead of playing into the listener's expectations, The Morning Benders fill this hole with a quiet chorus setting you up for a soft finale. Expectations are again completely ignored, as "Boarded Doors" ends with one of the few guitar solos on the album. "Wasted Time" is a soft song, like an old car that purrs through the desert at night. "Chasing A Ghost" carries more baggage as it trudges along, with delicate reverberation that gives the whole song a ghastly quality. "When We're Apart" is a plaintive lullaby, a compromise that has more than a little hint of sadness. It leaves you wondering if the pain of being together is truly less then the pain of being apart. "When We're Apart" is the official final song of the album, but there is still a bonus track entitled "Worth the Fight". This song is pure morning folk woven from lightly colored sunbeams. The lyrics ask the same question as I asked at the end of "When We're Apart", albeit in different words: "...at the end of the night will it still be worth it to put up a fight?". Is there any reason to try to put something together if it's more broken whole, then it is when the pieces are separated? That's the new question of the day.