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Rolling With the Punches

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Keith Ferguson is trying to work his way through the crowd at One Eyed Jacks, but he's stopped every few steps by friends and family attending World Leader Pretend's invitation-only date celebrating the June 28 release of its debut album for Warner Bros. Records, Punches. When Better Than Ezra's Tom Drummond asks Ferguson, the band's singer and primary songwriter, how he's doing, Ferguson confesses he's exhausted, having just got home after a month on the road at 10 a.m. that day. On the tour, the band played before tens of thousands at festivals in Europe, and opened for R.E.M. -- whose song on Green gave the band its name -- with Michael Stipe watching from the side of the stage. Still, Ferguson's tired.

"Welcome to major-label life," Drummond says with a smile.

A week later, Ferguson is relaxing at a coffee shop on Magazine Street watching traffic go by. He's slightly pensive, moving into uncharted territory. The morning before the CD-release party, he saw a short feature on the band and Punches on MTV -- "that was pretty surreal." He has also started to get reports about increased airplay -- or "radio adds" -- for the album's first single, "Bang Theory."

"It's sort of obnoxious," he says, one of the few ways he has ever betrayed ambivalence about his ambition for the band. "I'm ready" is the first line of "Bang Theory," the album's opening track, and the band sounds like it's indeed ready on the record. Ferguson has been ready for a while, even if it has taken a while to find the right lineup. He and drummer Arthur Mintz played all the instruments on Punches with backing vocals by Parker Hutchinson, and these days the band on tour consists of Ferguson, Mintz, bassist Alex Smith and guitarist Matt Martin, formerly of Amerigo. The band's sound has been compared to R.E.M., Radiohead and Coldplay, not necessarily because such comparisons are accurate, but because each of those artists has served as the standard comparison for self-consciously artistic pop.

On Punches, World Leader Pretend's sound is largely defined by parts that almost sound like finger exercises played on an upright piano. Those elemental melodies give the songs a wistful core, matched by Ferguson's vulnerable, passionate vocals. "Dreamdaddy" uses that simplicity to create a direct sweetness that belongs on the radio. On top of that are layered parts that add drama, power and complexity before they abruptly disappear, leaving stark moments like the end of the chorus of the title track when Ferguson sings, "Your punches turned me into this."

"People like to trash pop music as being cheap and simple, but it's really a science," he says. "I think it's a beautiful art form and it's really underrated." Once he and Mintz finished recording the parts for "Bang Theory," they put the track through nine mixes to make it sound exactly right. "We spent half of the time on that one track."

Proud of the songs, onstage Ferguson and the band work to reproduce them as accurately as possible, which includes using backing tracks at times to supply parts that would take an additional three or four musicians to perform live. "You have to," he says, but some songs change in performance, anyway. At One Eyed Jacks, he performed "Lovey Dovey" on acoustic guitar as a duet with Blair Gimma, and the version of "Tit for Tat" was a stripped-down, simpler version than the one on the album. "It's cooler that way live because the groove of it all and the soul of it all really comes out," he says.

"Some of the songs get drawn out to this epic length like 'The Masses' or 'A Grammarian Stuck in a Medical Drama,'" Ferguson says. The latter has a slow, stately verse that moves to an ascending melody in the second half, a melody given energy by a U2-like guitar. That melody threatens to explode into something thrilling, only to be abruptly returned to quietness as Ferguson sings a wordless tune that recalls a children's song. The song is often an extended tease when performed live, playing with the audience's desire for a rave-up to break the tension created by the band's insistent return to the verse without providing a chorus. Sometimes the band gives them what they want -- at Jazz Fest, the song veered Sonic Youth-ward into a guitar freak-out -- but other nights that payoff never comes.

"The little pop songs are just fun to play," Ferguson continues. "They're all groovy and bouncy."

World Leader Pretend will perform those songs a lot as it works the alternative press. It's playing a SPIN magazine party on a pier in New York City with buzz band Handsome Boy Modeling School, and it's touring with Hot Hot Heat, and then Eisley. Studded through the tour schedule are stops at the various cities' alternative radio stations' outdoor festivals. Ferguson isn't quite sure how to respond to all that attention and potential good fortune.

"It's a rough life," he finally says with a slight smile, "but it's better than the alternative."

World Leader Pretend's major-label debut,  Punchless - (Warner Bros.), has led to a series of tours and festivals, - opening for R.E.M. and a surge in radio airplay.
  • World Leader Pretend's major-label debut, Punchless (Warner Bros.), has led to a series of tours and festivals, opening for R.E.M. and a surge in radio airplay.

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