Sondre Lerche: “Duper Sessions”

Sondre LercheCD Review >>

Sondre Lerche & The Faces Down Quartet
Duper Sessions
[Astralworks, 2006]
Rating: 7.5

No better way to mark the beginning of Spring than the stateside release of Sondre Lerche’s new album “Duper Sessions,” featuring the Faces Down Quartet. The man has already generated at least two albums’ worth of sunny, romantic, elegant pop that simply brim with class and sophistication well beyond his twenty-three years. In fact, the level of sophistication that Lerche reaches on “Duper Sessions” nearly immortalizes him as one of pop music’s great anomalies.

He was only 18 when he recorded most of what would become his stellar debut album “Faces Down.” Following its stateside release in the fall of 2002, legions of critics, who had little else to pick the young Norwegian apart for, repeatedly cited the inevitable obstacles he faced writing lyrics in his second language, yet still lavished him with well-deserved comparisons to Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello. I found it impossible to hold the language barrier against him. He still wrote better songs than a majority of Americans who got any attention from the mainstream press that year, which is sad in a way. Few artists anywhere near the realm of popular music have drawn such heady comparisons to artists two to three times their age in this context. Was Lerche trying so hard to emulate those soul-infected, bossa nova stylings and appear well beyond his years, or simply aiming to separate himself from a slew of other “sensitive” Euro-indie acts? Truthfully, for myself and many others who had the good fortune to discover the man early on, the songs on “Faces Down” and its follow-up “Two-Way Monologue” were too damn irresistible to worry about his intentions.

“Duper Sessions” is a fitting extension in and chapter to the already illustrious career of Sondre Lerche Vaular. The concise 13-track (plus one hidden, Norwegian track “Lulu Vise”) LP is a great, somewhat retroactively maturing step in a career that already screams of maturity. For Lerche and his band (so-named because many of the musicians have been playing and working closely with Lerche since his debut album), this is an admirable experiment in pop song craft on merit alone. Pianist Erik Halvorsen and bassist Morton Skage jump into the spotlight with Sondre on the album’s exuberant opener “Everyone’s Rooting for You” without shifting the focus or watering down their collective reverence for the 3-minute pop song. In fact, only one song, the lumbering “(You Knocked Me) Off my Feet,” ventures above the four-minute mark. Even more remarkable is the unapologetically slow first single “Minor Detail,” a truly breezy, down-tempo ode to love-related anxiety.

Lerche breaks further ground for himself and pays an explicit tribute to a couple of his influences. He channels Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” straight through to solo electric, producing something entirely faithful to Porter yet perfectly comparable to anything on the stripped-down “Don’t Be Shallow” EP (on which a live version was previously available). The constant comparisons to Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello (whose “Human Hands” gets an incredible revitalization here) are more relevant here than ever.

Lerche never channeled his post-adolescent angst (assuming he had any) early on like Costello did on “My Aim is True” during punk’s heyday. This album will find favor with the indie-pop crowd, though taken out of context, it’s a fine lounge CD that recalls about eighty years of that aesthetic. To be perfectly honest, I just sent my grandmother a copy for her birthday. However, Lerche and the versatile quartet have a straight-ahead rock album in the works and will be recording in Los Angeles this spring. Until now, we’ve only gotten hints of Sondre’s aggressive side, but his increasingly and consistently impressive body of work along the lines of “Duper Sessions” gives us little reason to expect disappointment in any form.