By: Eric Greenwood
One of the drawbacks of naming your band after another band's song, particularly when that song is by R.E.M., is that your music is viewed not only in context with the more famous band's culture but also compared directly against it. That's a setback upstart bands don't need when they're trying to grow out of obvious influences and create a unique sound, not to mention find an audience.
World Leader Pretend doesn't seem to have suffered much from its inherent link to R.E.M., as the New Orleans quintet secured a major label deal with Warner Bros. (R.E.M.'s label, no less) on the merits of its debut, Fit for Faded. You can hear the major label money in the impeccable production on Punches. Orchestral arrangements underpin taught, paranoid songwriting with surface musical debts to British pop purveyors Travis and Radiohead. Vocalist Keith Ferguson has a confident and versatile voice that he affects with Thom Yorke's nervous exasperation and even Black Francis' whispered snarl.
Punches is extraordinarily accomplished music for such a young band, incorporating an indie sensibility into its grandiose presentation. Ferguson's songwriting is focused and self-aware. With his tongue firmly planted in cheek, he quotes ridiculous pop songs in the midst of seemingly dramatic lyrical turns. For example, on the stupendous, piano-laden opener, "Bang Theory", Ferguson lifts and slightly distorts some lines from Sugar Ray, drawing out "so long, so hard, so far away" over the billowing music. And on the title track he slips Celine Dion's "where does my heart beat now?" into the chorus without breaking the tension. It's a difficult feat, but it works with Ferguson's penchant for melodramatic hooks.
In his lower register, Ferguson recalls Neil Diamond with an anxious vibrato, though Thom Yorke's idiosyncratic audible breaths between syllables keep the Radiohead undercurrent at constant arm's length. The dark piano swing of "The Masses" builds to a pressure point wherein Ferguson howls in falsetto, while the music clangs in a studiously orchestrated swarm of tension.
The pretentious swell of Punches may seem a bit overcooked at times, but the band's lugubrious compositions always exceed expectations.