Report: Morning Benders Live in Mass.

The blog-approved
buzzband packs the house at The Iron Horse in Northampton, on Nov. 10. But quite possibly
there is, ultimately, emptiness at the core. Meanwhile the crazy energy of
Oberhofer and the dreamy drift of Twin Sister serve to make the opening acts
the ones who leave the biggest impression.

 

By Jennifer Kelly

Sometimes the bill is upside down. 

 

Tonight, for instance, when scrappy upstart Oberhofer upends
strummy, sunny, two-guitar-effects-and-some-harmonies-away-from-a-jam-band
Morning Benders, in a blitz of eerie “ooh ooh oohs.”  The middle of the bill, too, dream-tripping
Twin Sister, led by the wide-eyed, raccoon-hatted Andrea Estrella, is
considerably more interesting than the headliner.  That the Morning Benders are vastly popular
and that two-thirds of a large turnout seems to know their songs by heart only
confirms what everyone already knows. 
The indie kids have a taste for the bland. 

 

 

But let’s start with the good stuff, because Oberhofer was,
indeed, very good.  It’s a four-piece on
stage, though it would be Oberhofer with just the singer, 19-year-old Brad
Oberhofer, who started his eponymous outfit in Tacoma
Washington and has recently moved it to Brooklyn.  Tonight,
he’s clutching an undersized blue guitar, letting one curl fall recklessly over
his forehead (a la Morrissey maybe, or possibly he just needs a haircut), as
his strange bird-like falsetto floats over hard punk rhythms.  Oberhofer has named his first EP and a single
“ooOOOooOOOo,” which sounds exactly like it’s spelled, “oo-OOO-oo-OOO-o” with
the capitalized “OOOs” swooning upward into impossibly high regions of the
register.  

 

The band is quite good as well, the drummer setting off
minor firestorms in back, the bassist in a wife-beater tee, showing off his
pecs to the first row, a guitarist in a blue knit hat switching between
mechanically precise phrases on a glockenspiel and frenetic scrubbing on the
guitar.  Oberhofer, himself, plays guitar
too, at one point picking out a delicate, very high, two-handed riff on the
bridge of his guitar, which was slammed to pieces by a nearly metallic,
all-band assault. 

 

It’s irresistible, their combination of pristine pop and
explosive, math-precise assaults of punk rock guitars, powered by the sort of
high spirits that you can only really have if you’re a band of teenagers on the
road for the first or second time and absolutely killing it. 

 

 

Next up is Long Island’s
Twin Sister, whose synth-driven, soft-focus sound recalls bands like Stereolab
and Portishead.  Their set-up is more
than usually complicated, requiring the installation of multiple keyboards, a
boombox, pedals and a sample pad, in addition to the usual guitar, bass and
drums.  As the process goes on, I spot
the singer Andrea Estrella looking on from behind a post, as dreamy-eyed and
delicate as you’d infer from her voice.  
Finally, they’re ready and the first song begins with bassist Gabe
D’Amico running some soft of radio signal through his bass pick-up, the hiss of
static blending imperceptibly into a soft, danceable groove.  (I’m pretty sure this is “Galaxy Plateau.”) Estrella
moves continually, but in a slow-motion sort of way, as if she’s underwater,
stepping up to the mic and back again, bobbing up and down from the waist.  She trades off vocals with guitarist Eric
Cardona, whose voice is almost as soft and whispery as her own.  It is an enveloping, hallucinatory sound,
grounded physically by the slow thud of bass and the rigid discipline of Bryan
Ujueta’s drumming.  (As with similarly
trippy Black Moth Super Rainbow, the drumming is a lot more noticeable live
than on the record.)

 

Synthesizers are a big part of Twin Sister’s sound, with
keyboardist Dev “Updbhav” Gupta holding court behind a three-tier rig that
includes a DX3 and several others. 
Dreamy “Lady Daydream,” coming midway through the set, has a
particularly high, lucid keyboard line that sound vaguely early 1990s, like
something that Tears for Fears might have tried.  Later, “Milk and Honey” braces Estrella’s
whispery, kittenish vocals with hard disco-ish rhythms.  Near the end, Estrella and Cardona join in
high bird-like harmonies around the phrase “I think it’s true,” their voices
drifting in and out of dissonance. 
Estrella takes the lead for haunting, lightly arranged “I want a house,”
though even this song, which is nearly bare in its recorded version, takes on a
physical, hip-shifting rhythm here via the bass and drums. 

 

Twin Sister veers in and out of dance territory, throughout
its set, so it is perhaps not so strange that their lone cover is a disco song,
La Bionda’s “I Want to Be Your Lover.” 
They are clearly enjoying themselves, bass thumping, hi-hat slushing,
synths blaring, sample pad clacking, as for once, they don’t play with strobe
lit hedonism, but actively embrace it. 

 

And then it’s time for the Morning Benders, whose sunny
guitar-strummed pop has already won a Best New Music nod from Pitchfork, as
well as a fairly large, fairly psyched crowd of 20-somethings for tonight’s
show.  The Morning Benders set starts in
the shimmering synthetic string tones off Big
Echo
, out since March on Rough Trade. 
This ethereality settles into a sort of shuffling country beat, as
lithe, delicate Chris Chu takes the center mic, flanked by Jonathan Chu on
guitar and Tim Or on bass.  (Julian
Harmon plays the drums in the back.)   The song is “Promises,” all dream-washed
harmonies and shivering guitar effects , but built on a funk backbeat.  It ends with three of four Morning Benders
leaning into their mics singing “dee-dee-dahs,” in perfect three-part
harmony. 

 

The set hits most of the highlights from this year’s Big Echo, “Promises,” “Wet Cement,”
“Waiting for a War” and “Cold War” among them, in a trippy amalgamation of
Shins-esque pop, Fleet Foxes harmonies and space rocking guitar effects.  However, the Morning Benders also makes time
for a couple of songs from the previous Talking
through Tin Cans
.  These earlier
songs seem somewhat simpler, more funk-inflected, jammier, less inclined to
vocal flourishes or guitar effects.  Chu performs a slight, modified version of the chicken
dance to these numbers, his chin jutting out in tandem with the upbeat-heavy
rhythm. 

 

About mid-set Chu asks how
many people in the audience would consider Fleetwood Mac their favorite band, and
a surprising number raise their hands. 
This is the lead-in to the Morning Benders’ cover of “Dreams,” where Chu takes on Stevie Nicks’ dreamy flutter and his band
masses alongside him in syrup-sweet 1970s harmonies.   It’s a fun cover, and the crowd seems to
enjoy it, but it crystallizes an idea that’s been forming in my head all night
long.  No matter how tightly they play or
how sweetly they harmonize – and, make no mistake, this is a very capable band –
there’s a kind of emptiness at the core, very much like late 1970s radio
pop.  It makes perfect sense that if you
like Morning Benders, you will think fondly about Fleetwood Mac.  You probably like vanilla ice cream, too. 

 

The set cruises to its close with a string of Big Echo songs, “Waiting for a War,”
with people in the audience clapping, and “All Day Daylight” with its big
bursting power chords and syncopated bass. 
It closes with “Excuses,” a song so beloved and familiar, that the
audience takes over the “de-dah de-dah” harmonies, and one guy in the crowd
experiments with the keening descant that is, perhaps, best left to
professionals.  No question, Morning
Benders delivered exactly what its core audience wanted, all the hits wrapped
up in a tightly practiced, super-competent bow. 
But personally, I like a bit more of the wild card when I go to a show –
the crazy energy of Oberhofer, the dreamy drift of Twin Sister – with a few
loose ends hanging and the sense that anything could happen. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply