World Leader Pretend, Punches (Warner Bros.)

World Leader Pretend - Punches World Leader Pretend
Warner Bros.
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.

The Life And Times, Suburban Hymns (DeSoto)

The Life And Times - Suburban Hymns The Life And Times
Suburban Hymns
By: Eric Greenwood

Kansas City, Missouri's Allen Epley is underrated. And I don't mean underrated in the sense that he's a talented musician that maybe you should have heard of by now- I mean it in the sense that it's a crime that this man isn't worshipped by anyone who understands how a guitar works. Ok, maybe that's overstating it a bit. But not much. The point is this guy has written some amazing songs that you probably haven't heard, and that's a damn shame.

I don't really even believe in the concept of being "underrated", but if there has to be one, then Epley is it. His band, Shiner outlasted and outgunned so many of its muscular, mathematically adept post-rock peers with colossal recorded statements like 1997's Lula Divinia, and, especially, 2001's masterfully ambitious, The Egg, but the masses failed to catch on. Frustrated by the limited reach of its music after years of touring and enduring the promotional machine, Shiner disbanded to pursue other outlets.

In the two and a half years since Shiner played its last show, Epley has cultivated The Life and Times. As was the case with Shiner, line-up changes have stymied The Life and Times' level of productivity, but, if nothing else, Epley knows how to persevere to his gain. The Life and Times' 2003 debut EP, The Flat End of the Earth, showcased Epley's recessive guitar instincts, as opposed to his former band's calculated crunch, and allowed him to make his raspy voice more prominent in the mix. That trend certainly extends to his band's first full-length, Suburban Hymns.

With a fairly secure line-up in place, The Life and Times finally has some firm footing. Suburban Hymns will surprise Shiner fans more so than did the Flat End of the Earth EP. Epley's taken to playing through a hollow-bodied Gibson guitar, which has changed his sound and his writing style completely. Where Shiner's music balanced complexity with equal parts melody and muscle, The Life and Times eschews convolution in favor of atmosphere and tunefulness. And lots of reverb. Epley's vocals soar above the songs, dangling in a vacuum of drenching echo.

You can sense a powerful undercurrent in every song, even if the expected loudness is held at bay. Epley's long-latent reverence to both R.E.M. and Swervedriver bubble to the surface, particularly on the driving "Coat of Arms" and "Charlotte Street." Epley's voice has always stood out in the alternative landscape. His register is lower than the average emo fruit and his delivery much more polished. It's a perfect balance of sweet and sour. The rough edges meld seamlessly with an effervescent falsetto that is powerful enough to carry several songs on its own, especially the heartbreakingly lovely "A Chorus of Crickets."

The catchy keyboard line that steers "My Last Hostage" sounds uncharacteristically upbeat for a band that rarely cracks so much as a smile underneath its moody veneer. Epley's penchant for shoegazer guitar rock prevails throughout Suburban Hymns, despite Chris Metcalf's and Eric Abert's challenging and commanding rhythm section. Epley's used to surrounding himself with stellar musicians, having worked with two of the finest (yes, underrated) drummers in Tim Dow and Jason Gerken, so he knows how to make a drummer fit his vision.

Suburban Hymns is not a typical band's debut album. It's far wiser, as Epley is a scene veteran with a decade's experience under his belt. Suburban Hymns (a subtle Verve reference?) beautifully evokes a consistent mood of longing and stunted acquiescence. Epley's vocal hooks are drawn out and expanded from the searing choruses of his Shiner days. The songs are immediate in and of themselves yet require repetition to sink in fully as one uninterrupted piece. The Life and Times' music is dynamic and powerful, combining post-punk rhythms with early '90's shoegaze. Few bands can rock with such delicate force, but The Life and Times prove to be masters of this art.