Ed: This is the first in a two-part review series investigating the art of spontaneity and the modern album.
The pitfall with spontaneity is that it flies in the face of the recorded medium. Simply putting song to tape requires a certain level of planning. What's more, recording provides the tempting ability to polish every note to a glimmering sheen, and modern methods have only made the process easier. This quest for sonic nirvana can get to the point where imperfection is added after the fact to give a recording "character." To err is human, after all.
Which brings us to jazz. Spontaneity and improvisation are implicit in the genre. A jazz record has a natural sense of the impromptu, smoothing the unrehearsed into discernable melody. Recently, I read an article in Time about jazz singers, in which the author's main critique of the current crop was their tendency towards over-singing stretching and sliding, adding superfluous notes and ornaments. I'm not going to pretend to be a vocal-jazz purist, but it seems to me the effortless clarity of Sondre Lerche's tenor is a perfect remedy to this modern malaise.
Right from downbeat, Lerche immediately calls to mind a bygone, swinging era. While a host of artists have tackled the genre in recent years (their output can be found adorning checkout-line displays at Starbucks and Whole Foods nationwide), most of these characters rely heavily on the standards catalogue. Lerche blows them out of the water by proving that it is indeed possible to write and arrange new songs in this style. In fact, no fewer than 10 of Duper Sessions' 14 tracks are originals.
His first two albums, Faces Down and Two Way Monologue, both demonstrated a penchant for lounge-influenced pop. However, where those records featured layer upon layer of instrumentation and detailed arrangement, Duper Sessions keeps it simple by sticking with a five-piece combo: acoustic guitar, electric guitar, upright bass, piano and drums. The first track, "Everyone's Rooting for You," captures the Rat Pack swagger. Featuring three back-to-back solo breaks (piano, electric guitar, and upright bass), it establishes the players' jazz credentials from the outset. Most impressive is that the band makes its statement with tasteful playing as opposed to relying on brute-force, virtuosic flourishes.
"Minor Detail" continues the album's laid-back vibe. An acoustic guitar begins picking a delicate pattern, while the rest of the instruments gradually make their entrance. The song has an almost rehearsal-session feel which makes sense, considering the album was recorded over a handful of days, live in the studio. That these musicians have been playing together for five years is apparent; the band is tight. Newcomer pianist Erik Halvorsen not only melds perfectly into the Faces Down, but also asserts a distinctive voice in the combo.
Halvorsen's contributions are evident on a song like "Human Hands," perhaps the most surprising cover on the album. What had something of a reggae-bop on Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom has been elegantly transformed into a full-on jazz shuffle. It's a testament to Lerche's songwriting ability that the original material doesn't sound out of place next to the "standards" (and vice versa). It's also a testament to the talent of the Faces Down Quartet they listen and play as a reactive ensemble.
In the end, it is musicianship that makes Duper Sessions unquestionably successful. Capable rock bands are few and far between, but the Faces Down have proven themselves more than up to the task with this record. Each song is infused with a sense of spontaneity (even the one with a string arrangement). The album is buoyant, offering up inspired freshness time and again. And as the first of two Sondre Lerche albums slated for release this year, Duper Sessions' excellence bodes well for the second.
Next week, we'll look at spontaneity on the other end of the spectrum: Cut-and-paste with the Flaming Lips. Will it be as effective an ad-lib affair? We shall see.