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Fergus & Geronimo

Unlearn

(Hardly Art; US: 18 Jan 2011; UK: import)

Fergus & Geronimo, made up chiefly of duo Andrew Savage and Jason Kelly, are pop imposters. After scattering singles across various labels, Hardly Art has put out their first full-length, Unlearn, which is in itself a scattershot cross-section of pop music. What they achieve here, constantly catching their listener off-guard by changing tempo, texture, feel, and (often) musical genre, is no easy feat. Other bands try this sort of jarring surprise with vast, patched-together soundscapes, but not Fergus & Geronimo. Throughout 11 songs and less than a half-hour, the band maintains tight pop structures and rests on quick, infectious hooks. The surprise comes in no two songs sounding the same. In fact, if you didn’t know any better, you might think this a compilation of various unknown pop acts.


Opener “Girls with English Accents” sets you up for an album of sweetly nerdy, sun-drenched pop music. The lead guitar hums over a dusty acoustic, and the spare percussion makes it feel like a folk-pop ditty, albeit one that contains playful vocal harmonies and deep hooks. They pay homage to those oft-romanticized British girls, hoping to take a trip across the pond to meet them, but then the two-and-a-half minutes of pop bliss are over, not setting you up at all for “Wanna Know What I Would Do?” While the humble pop sound is intact, just about everything else here is different. They trade sun-soak for faint, dour guitars, delivering a deadpan indictment of hipster idolatry that Jeffrey Lewis will probably wish he wrote.


From there, we get the earnest blues-rock of “Powerful Lovin’”, and to this point, nothing has sounded the same, but you can see the lines they’re drawing. From there, though, the wheels start to come off in an exciting way. There’s the precise guitar noodling of “Michael Kelly”, the burst of garage-rock energy that is “Baby Don’t You Cry”, and—perhaps the most curious song of them all—“The World Never Stops”, which makes Kelly and Savage sound like bratty younger brothers of Sonic Youth. Through all this shape-shifting, it becomes clear that these dudes know their stuff. It isn’t just that they effectively bounce from one genre to another; what’s so impressive is that they hit them all with precision and energy, so they seem to, say, out-Black Lips the Black Lips on “Baby Don’t You Cry”, and pretty much show up whoever else they want to with the breadth of their pop-music chops.


This is, however, a double-sided success. Fergus & Geronimo are awfully clever in these songs, and sometimes you wonder if Savage and Kelly are being too clever for their own good. The arch delivery of “Wanna Know What I Would Do?” is pitch-perfect, nailed the way Stephin Merritt would nail it. Following the cute “Girls with English Accents”, though, it makes what seems like a more earnest “Powerful Lovin’” come across as flip. So while they nail the blues-rock vibe, you start to wonder to what end they knock it out. “Forced Aloha”, a dreamy, psych-pop stand-out that comes late in the record, similarly leaves a question mark. It shakes off the cleverness better than “Powerful Lovin’”, but with all this precise genre-hopping, you start to wonder if they really feel all of these songs or if they do it just because they’re good at it.


Unlearn is, without a doubt, an impressive pop record, a set of songs that are infectious yet more ambitious than their lean, humble sound might initially give away. The question then becomes whether or not this wide range of sounds is, in fact, their sound. They certainly don’t sound like they’re borrowing, so much as building on what’s there, but when you hit the genuine feeling of moments like “Forced Aloha”, for all the band’s dynamic performances, those are the moments that stick.

Rating:

Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.


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