Giddy Norwegian songwriter goes punk, sort of
Norwegian songwriter Sondre Lerche first popped up in the U.S. in 2002,
with the release of Faces Down, a curious collection of spry, jubilant pop songs as inspired by 1980s European radio as Bossa Nova, British folk and Tin Pan Alley. With his smooth vocals and crisp arrangements, Lerche sounded anachronistic but modern, like a retro-kitsch microwave in a ripe shade of avocado green: ridiculous, a tiny bit tacky, but strangely comforting all the same.
Phantom Punch, Lerche's fourth full-length since signing with Virgin Norway in 2000, is also his grittiest, least-ethereal long-player to date. Produced by Tony Hoffer (who has twiddled knobs for Beck, Belle and Sebastian, Grandaddy and Air) in Los Angeles last spring, Phantom Punch features Lerche's latest backing band, The Faces Down Quartet, and a shocking number of distorted guitar riffs and almost-hollers. Phantom Punch is hardly seething garage rock, but tracks like the effects-soaked "The Tape" sound more like Hot Hot Heat than Serge Gainsbourg, and Lerche repeatedly eschews his trademark guise (jaunty, wistful ditties, sometimes with orchestration, always with a jazz inflection) for scrappier, yelpier renderings.
Several of these tracks were cut live, and Phantom Punch feels
appropriately brash and immediate: opener "Airport Taxi Reception" sees
Lerche's fey cooing hit brisk guitar and a hip-swinging chorus, with
Lerche pining persuasively ("I left my mind at the airport / My thoughts in the taxi / My heart at reception / The last thing I saw was you"). Likewise, "Face the Blood" is full of almost-punk guitar and thrashing drums, with Lerche twisting his perfect croon into a convincing growl. You'll feel less like politely nodding your Beret-topped head and flicking a hand-rolled cigarette, and more like throwing your elbows around and dancing like an awkward American, equal parts sweaty and stupid, knocking things over, wheezing and giggling.
Phantom Punch might be a departure of sorts for Lerche, but it's still infused with familiar tricks: the record features jazz rhythms and cool, sprightly melodies, Lerche's vaguely bizarre lyrics (his colloquial English isn't perfect, although his verses are considerably less clumsy than they were four years ago) and sweet, jubilant delivery-think pop-punk performed by Rufus Wainwright. And it's still oddly (but gratifyingly) difficult to discern exactly where Lerche fits into the contemporary indie landscape-his folkier pieces have earned him a handful of comparisons to Nick Drake, but his vocals are too tinged with barely contained glee (even when singing about conceptual self-hatred, like in "Tragic Mirror") to ever convincingly mimic Drake's dim sighs . And maybe that's the thing about Sondre Lerche: no matter what he's up to, he always sounds like he's having an embarrassingly good time.