In a year when nearly every rock or pop album is released by a band with Brit envy, nothing is more irksome than watching today’s pop artists borrow from British bands of the nineties — Pulp, Blur, James, even earlier, fundamental predecessors such as the Smiths, New Order, XTC — and get lumped into the “you’ll love this if you like Coldplay and U2” category. Because there was life before Coldplay. And because U2 has become so bland over the last two decades that it sometimes takes a bit of memory jogging to realize that they’re actually not American.
So what is it about World Leader Pretend, a loose quintet from New Orleans that not only avoids the jazz its city is known for but can also please even the strongest of Anglophiles? And this, despite containing (with the exception of touring bass player Alex Smith) nary a single English element? Interestingly enough, the group has become what it once strove to be. Major-label debut Punches is a full, musically rich album, a quality the band’s 2003 debut, Fit for Faded, was far from reaching.
Vocalist Keith Ferguson claims that growing up in the Deep South allowed the band members to start creating music they imagined was relevant in other parts of the world. Though their debut was a steady imitation of mid-nineties Radiohead, they’ve finally come into their own and learned to make music that is a bit more luxurious, a bit more specific, a bit more them. Punches borrows elements from a number of sources. Ferguson himself has a range that echoes Rufus Wainwright at his most tame, Thom Yorke at his most unruly, Tim Booth at his most natural.
But most every album has its imperfections, and the greatest flaw with Punches is its very ally: musical diversity. This is a record where a Louis XIV-style, faux-British dance hit such as “B.A.D.A.B.O.O.M.” flows into an easy-going, lazy-day beat and gradually directs the record into a state of sedation via guitar. Ideal as it seems, track order plays a large role in the success of a record. The most powerful songs on this album (“The Masses” and “A Grammarian Stuck in a Medical Drama”) would make ideal conclusions to the album. But that the album continues after such boldly climactic songs — twice — may leave the listener wanting to ignore any tracks that follow.
Is this a loaded statement? Potentially not. Rarely found in pop-rock is a song as perfect as “The Masses.” It begins as what appears to be a complete imitation of “She’s a Rainbow,” then transforms into an eruption that builds up ever so slightly until we’ve all collapsed into a heap of unbelievable satisfaction. And this repeats with the nearly eight-minute “Grammarian,” which doesn’t quite end the album and leaves me with no choice but to wish that Punches had been designed as two separate EPs, each with its own closing pinnacle.
Ideal or not, World Leader Pretend has vastly improved over the course of two years, and for guys who chose a band name by flipping through their record collection (they copped this name from a song on Green), they’re doing a fine job of staying thorough and executing their plans.