They raised the wall, and they will be the one to knock it down: symphonic pop-rock group has been given the freedom to do as they see fit.
Naming a band after another group's song or album is a dangerous endeavor, risking relegation to imitator status and the wrath of listeners with preconceived expectations. It works for, say, the Court and Spark, whose name instantly evokes early '70s L.A. country-rock, but who were smart enough to dip across gender lines to preclude any notion of them sounding like Joni Mitchell. On the other hand, I can't be the first Steely Dan fanatic to knit his brow in consternation as excitement quickly dissipated to the strains of Deacon Blue.
But if World Leader Pretend is walking into a minefield on its major-label debut Punches, which follows one earlier independent release, it hardly shows much anxiety -- that of influence, or otherwise. "I'm ready to conquer your kingdom," announces the album's opening lyric, and the only tilt of the hat to R.E.M. for supplying the band's name comes via an oblique allusion in the lyric "I'm gonna turn you over, inside out" late in the game. No jangling Peter Buck guitar arpeggios and no murmured political Stipeisms here. For that matter, little sonic trace of the band's hometown of New Orleans either, besides a vague whiff of ragtime on the piano intro to "New Voices" and a vocal trace of Better Than Ezra on "Dreamdaddy". Instead, World Leader Pretend deals in full-blown symphonic pop-rock, the kind that piles on saxophones, trumpets, glockenspiels, French horns, sleigh bells, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and if not the kitchen sink, then the tin cans in it, literally.
"Bang Theory" announces the band's presence as explosively as promised, with a cascading piano melody that periodically steps aside to let the orchestra howl. Singer, songwriter, and nearly one-man-band Keith Ferguson jumps in with feverish vocals sounding closer to Our Lady Peace than Bright Eyes, though he's not above an occasional overwrought stage whisper of 1999-vintage Oberst. Ferguson wrote and played most of the songs on the album, with two other members contributing mostly backing vocals and percussion, and he's a melody-junkie who needs frequent fixes. His songs are crammed with hook-filled verses and choruses awash in a sea of middle-eights, bridges, and outros that could supply entire songs to other bands. It's like a hyperactive Elephant Six band with major-label money, and it can be splendid. "New Voices" and the title track maintain the sharp melodicism of "Bang Theory", and "The Masses" bursts open with a deep, propulsive piano line straight out of mid-'60s Motown before further exploding into a cacophonous orchestral roar. At times the barrage of sound can fall a bit flat; "Bang Theory" fades out on a melody inexplicably lifted straight from Sugar Ray's trivial '90s radio hit "Someday", and "Lovey Dovey" threatens to collapse into its own black hole of twee (or at least invite Local H's song of the same name to come snarl at it) before it bows out just short of the 2:30 mark. Even then, though, the song proves winning on subsequent listens, when the knowledge of its brevity tempers its sugary sweetness.
As busy as they are, the arrangements on Punches rarely seem excessive. Ferguson's sonic vision is broad, and if he's shooting with a cast of thousands, he's not squandering the extras, as small details like the string section buried near the end of the title track float up on repeat listens. The entire album also displays a percussive imagination extending well beyond the standard rock drum kit. What ultimately prevents the album from reaching its potential heights is a simple dilemma: it loses steam in the final third. After "B.A.D.A.B.O.O.M." offers a surprising guitar rave-up behind a spoken monologue about monsters, Punches descends into bland mushiness. "Into Thin Air" plunks along and vanishes as its title suggests. "A Grammarian Stuck in a Medical Drama" puts a decent song on the rack and stretches it out to an interminable eight minutes, concluding with enough feeble feedback to allow one time to wonder whether the band won any Radiohead-parody contests with the song's name. Finally, "Catch" lets the album wither and die on a barely-audible acoustic note.
The protracted fizzle of Punches prevents it from delivering the knock-out blow the early songs suggest Ferguson is capable of throwing. But World Leader Pretend is young, hungry, and talented. This album is only one round, and I won't be surprised if there's a K.O. on the way.