Though rarely given their due outside of their fair home city, No Knife were one of the greatest bands to emerge from San Diego’s indie rock scene. Sharing a similar affinity for jagged riffs and complex rhythms with bands like Tanner and Drive Like Jehu, while displaying a pop sensibility that even landed them some local radio airplay, the band was a unique fixture here. Alas, after the release of fourth album Riot For Romance the four members went their separate ways. Yet songwriter and singer Ryan Ferguson (who shared his frontman duties in the band with Mitch Wilson) began playing solo sets shortly thereafter, and in 2005 released his debut EP Three, Four, which was well received locally and even earned a San Diego Music Award for `Best Pop Album’. With his debut full length Only Trying To Help, however, he’s ready for the rest of the country to share in our appreciation.
As a solo artist, Ferguson seems to subscribe to the Ken Andrews school of singer/songwriters, in that his work sounds much more like the work of a rock band than a solo troubadour. Granted, the work of a solo artist can range anywhere from the lo-fi folk of Sparklehorse to the flamboyant orchestration of Rufus Wainwright. Ferguson’s sounds like neither, and rather an extension of his post-punk influenced work with No Knife, albeit blended with a bit of jangle pop for a radio friendly sheen.
In opening track “Remission,” Ferguson layers on the guitars, thick and dense, yet a touch of electric piano keeps the sound brighter and less immediately aggressive sounding. He brings back image of cutlery in its chorus, singing “so we take a knife, and cut out pieces that don’t seem right,” sounding exuberant and optimistic in his seemingly determined stance. The staccato guitar jabs in “X’s & O’s” have a Wire-like feel, though the song’s melody is quite catchy and more power pop than anything. While a strummed acoustic guitar opens “Kill My Confidence,” Ferguson quickly lets the song explode into a full band arrangement with some amazing “oohs” during the chorus, and an almost alt-country sound, albeit one that’s been subliminally infused with Jawbox’s back catalogue.
The mellotron that accompanies “Introduction” gives it an epic and powerful ambience, while “Future Reservation” is much softer and quirkier, a combination of acoustic plucks and xylophone backed by an oddly distorted bassline. Meanwhile, the bell clanging grandeur of “In the Sea” has much less to do with aMiniature or Drive Like Jehu than Sufjan Stevens or Belle and Sebastian. And this pattern continues, Ferguson soaring heroically with his grand arrangements or chugging furiously with heavy guitar riffs, still adhering to the sound of his past while embracing something new and a bit more polished. By balancing both his pop sensibility with an edgier rock sound, Ferguson has tapped into that perfect medium between pop and punk, without explicitly being pop-punk. Bravo.
No Knife – Riot For Romance
Superchunk – Come Pick Me Up
Elliott Smith – Figure 8
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.