From the swampy, shambled, drunken, broken, blues- and jazzfest-ridden streets of New Orleans comes the most romantic, stately and, hell, best
band to come out of the South since R.E.M. (from whose 1988 song this band takes its name). On its second full-length, World Leader Pretend keeps its influences in its pockets (not on its sleeves) as it delivers an arresting lineup of soulful, ragged, piano-battering ballads to all of us who pine for Bends
-era Radiohead and the long-lost days when U2 was actually sexy. Singer and primary songwriter Keith Ferguson sings like he was on his way to imitating Bono but got distracted by Motown, the art of chain-smoking and a Mrs. Robinson-like muse. Aside from Ferguson's balls-out frontmanship (gasps and whispers, solid belting, attempts at a falsetto that's sadly above his range), the instrumentation is Herculean for a band so young, juxtaposing hotel-room trashers with sleighbells-and-piano interludes off the soundtrack to a lost Wes Anderson Christmas caper.
But damn it if it isn't too much. Almost all the songs try to be staggering, dynamic masterpieces, which leads to a misleading impression of sameness that certainly isn't a problem for the band in general. These guys have song-building chops that rank with the best, but Punches could have benefited from more self-denial in either editing (the two mid-'90s U2 ripoffs that close the album would not be missed) or the inclusion of a few songs that hark back to their darker, dreamier debut, Fit for Faded. But in a retro-obsessed, masturbatory-indie-diluted market, a band that crams too many muscular, sonorous, earnest and ambitious songs on a single record hardly warrants complaint.