Conor Oberst, the boy wonder behind the critically lauded band Bright Eyes, has received much praise for his soul-baring 2002 album, and he should; it's a great album. But also deserving of attention is Norway's Sondre Lerche, 2002's true wunderkind; his album Faces Down ranks among last year's best. Borrowing from the cabaret pop of Rufus Wainwright, the space rock of early David Bowie albums and Nick Drake's moody Brit-folk, Lerche, a 20-year-old Scandinavian sensation, has fashioned a unique sound constructed around soaring harmonies and plucky, often rhythmically accentuated, orchestrations.
His songs, which have a '60s pop feel, are driven by jaunty acoustic guitars, striking string arrangements and quirky drumming. "Dead Passengers" finds Lerche backed by a female singer, Leslie Ahern; her sensual vocals perfectly complement Lerche's voice. The pitter-patter of drums that opens the song invites you into Lerche's youthful, wondrous world.
The strings are a key element, creating a sort of sonic bridge connecting the songs, allowing the album to cohere. Further, the album's sequencing befits Lerche's wistful sound; the songs become increasingly melodic as the album progresses. On "You Know So Well," Lerche sings, "There is one thing I know/ It goes like this/ It's that when I'm down and out/ It's you I miss," and a full string section swells behind him. Sure, the lyrics might be a tad reductive, but give the lad credit; English isn't his mother tongue, after all. Still, the song is so fetching, and his delivery so strong, that the lyrics just seem beside the point.
"Sleep on Needles" is a punchy number with a revved-up guitar line and Lerche's affected purring. The song's verse builds up tension until the expansive chorus hits. "Suffused With Love" is one of those perfect three-minute pop songs. And give Lerche credit for brevity; he knows how to hook listeners in and leave them wanting more.
At times the album is a bit of a throwback to the '60s. Nothing else here quite recalls yesteryear like "Modern Nature" with its jangly rhythms and the call-and-response exchange between Lerche and vocalist Lillian Samdal. He inquires, "Do you have a clue what this is?," and her brassy, sexy voice replies, "I don't know." Kitschy, sure, but it sounds so good! "Virtue and Wine" continues in the '60s pop vein, refined and languid. The song simmers with its sophisticated mélange of cocktail-party rhythms textured and dazzling soft keyboards and, naturally, Lerche's delicate voice.
Lerche's complex songs sometimes seem to feature minimal instrumentation, before the rest of the instruments enter the mix. "No One's Gonna Come" opens with what sounds like plangent, industrial drumming. But just as you're expecting, perhaps, a ballad, a saucy bossa nova groove sweeps in with guitars following closely. Lerche's voice then appears, singing, "No one's gonna come/ Tell you how it's done/ Tell you how it feels/ So you calm down" and the drums rise in volume, heightening emotionality.
While Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes may be the "It Band" of the moment, Lerche is a talent that should not be ignored. Faces Down exudes a freshness and a passion that are immensely compelling, thanks to Lerche's knack for orchestration and innate theatricality. Let's just hope that his music gets heard.