Sondre Lerche

Phantom Punch

(Astralwerks; 2007)

By David Greenwald | 16 February 2007

"Muscular" is the last word one might use to describe the music of Sondre Lerche. The Norweigan songwriter's first two albums, Faces Down (2002) (written in the tender throes of his late teens) and Two Way Monologue (2004) are icons of sophisticated folk-pop, transposing Bacharachian jazz chord sensibilities to acoustic guitar and voice. On last year's Duper Sessions, Lerche tried on a new set of clothes -- actual jazz -- and found they fit superbly. But Phantom Punch is a backlash album: a young songwriter shying away from what could be his signature sound, perhaps in fear of being pigeonholed. Paul McCartney did the same thing, responding to critics of his schmaltzy love songs with "Helter Skelter"; Lerche ends up with songs like "Say It All." "I've been hitting the gym for six months!" he seems to protest, sweaty and flexing. You're about to compliment him until he confesses he's just been "doing a lot of cardio."

So Phantom Punch is a rock album, or at least an attempt at one, and in lots of places it's well executed. Though you'll never mistake the distorted guitars and the quick riffs for, say, Dinosaur Jr., Lerche's songs don't need much bulking up. Like Duper Sessions, the album is lean and economical -- toned rather than bulging. "Say It All" is the album's highlight, a pure pop song that differs from his usual hook-laden fare only in its use of electric guitars rather than acoustic ones. The title track is a dance-punk rave-up that works surprisingly well, Lerche's voice rising to match the glitzy crunch of the fuzz guitars.

The album's real weakness is not a stylistic one, but the monkey Lerche's carried on his back throughout his career: for every great song, there's a dud. For all the increased heaviness of the songs, several of them still sound like lightweights. Lerche's never written lyrics that stick to the ribs, and he's not about to start now: "Here's a man aware of his defects / Such a sensitive soul / Such a rebel / Incapable of detecting his flaws," he sings ironically on throwaway acoustic number "Tragic Mirror." The song's melody is hardly more distinctive, and as it is, the vocals are too close-mic'ed: you can hear his head move. But lyrics are a minor concern on several of the songs. "Happy Birthday Girl" suspends a glistening melody over sludgy, plodding guitars and bass; it sounds like a nightingale in a sewer. "The Tape" attempts to transition from Ted Leo-esque punk rock to a brief ska interlude and never quite recovers.

But these are new clothes for Lerche, and he keeps pulling on his tie and tucking his shirt back in. Unlike McCartney, Lerche never sings like he's comfortable in his new sound. He sounds like he always has: a sweet, smooth croon, with nary a hint of effort, much less shredded vocal chords. It fits fine on songs like "Say It All" and the dancy "She's Fantastic," but overall the album ends up a bit disjointed. Acoustic songs end up next to electric ones, including the pair sandwiching the blistering "Face The Blood" (in which he manages to nail a falsetto during the album's only real vocal workout). It's a patchwork which Lerche can't sew together effectively, as attractive as its individual parts might be.

Lerche certainly brings the required energy, and his songs are brisk and assured even when they're not striking gold. Phantom Punch is a good album, but not a great one, and certainly not the Career Record that Duper Sessions almost was. He's probably not cut out to write a great rock 'n' roll record, and it's just as well: McCartney did okay with that Abbey Road (1969) stuff.