“I think it’s my most intuitive record,” says Sondre Lerche. “It was fast. Super fast.”
There’s a boyish charm about this Norwegian-born songwriter that’s hard to miss. In person, Lerche is immediately engaging. Sandy-haired, with a quirky kind of handsomeness and perpetually lopsided smile, he bounces subtly in place as he speaks, giving him an air of mischief and sprite-like energy.
But there’s a good chance that this energy is more than just an air: Since his 2002 debut on Astralwerks at the age of 19, Lerche has consistently put out albums full of sophisticated and accessible pop compositions every other year.
With sensibilities that owe as much heritage to French chanson, tin-pan alley, pioneering bubblegum, and 80s pop as they do to indie rock, his ears have stayed focused on melody and song structure even when that has made genre seem like a moving target. But with his latest release, genre has finally become irrelevant and Lerche just sings.
Many artists save their self-titled album for a re-approach of their sound, and this one is no exception. 2009’s elaborately glossy Heartbeat Radio turned out to be one of Lerche’s best-received albums since he got his start. But instinctively, he knew that taking an identical approach on Sondre Lerche would be the wrong call.
“I wanted to have some limitations,” he says. “The last record I did was huge, and it took forever. I love that one, but this is its opposite. [Heartbreak Radio] was this really big, immaculate construction. This time, I wanted something a bit rawer — a bit more intimate and stripped down.”
It’s an effect he definitely achieves, and one that might not have been possible without the help of a new producer. He found it in Nicolas Vernhes, an engineer best known for his work with Spoon, Dirty Projectors, Fiery Furnaces, and Deerhunter.
Verhnes has made his name helping avant-garde bands capture gritty and organic sounds, and may seem an unlikely choice for Lerche at first glance. But ultimately, Vernhes sees himself as something of a “musical centerist,” as eager to highlight the Dirty Projectors’ most accessible and viscerally satisfying moments as he is to encourage Lerche in pushing the envelope in his own way.
In the three weeks they had together, Vernhes managed to help the singer/songwriter uncover a level of humanity and range of emotion only hinted at on previous records. In that time, they also developed a real rapport, with Vernhes acting as a cool and casually collected foil to Lerche’s eager and upright energy.
Whatever the resulting performances lack in polish or bombast, they make up for in quiet consideration or resolute freshness.
One of the standout tracks is “Red Flags,” an ambitious album cut that begins with a nakedly off-kilter vocal and develops into an indefinite narrative, featuring a resounding anti-chorus whose melody hinges on an unexpected note.
It’s an awkward interval to sing, but Lerche hits it each time, shakily, un-self-consciously, and with a spirit that conveys vulnerability appropriate to the song.
“That note is really outside my comfort zone,” says Lerche, “but it just feels really true to the song. [“Red Flags”] is a song where it’s so tempting to go big on the arrangement. And on another record, I might have. “
But they showed restraint. “Some of these songs sneak up on you,” says Vernhes. ”They take their time to open up. It’s like visiting with a friend. You don’t come into the room [full throttle].”
Like many songs on this record, “Red Flags” blossoms as it unfolds. “Sometimes,” remarks Vernhes, “a few notes and just the right emotion in a voice can do more to you than layers after layers.”
“We tracked mostly to tape,” Vernhes tells us from the Rare Book Room Studio in Greenpoint, where they recorded the album. “Sondre sang into tube pre and tube mic, so we could dial in just he right amount of grit and keep it from being too pretty.”
It’s a balance they managed to strike well, cut after cut.
“Riccochet” is a near lullaby that picks up colorfully chaotic flourishes as it rolls along. The delicate feel of the song is offset in stretches by an enormously bombastic snare drum that sports a unique tone, balancing a conventional big 80s digital reverb sound by blending in a helping of organic grit and hair.
“Yeah,” says Vernhes “It’s exactly that. That’s a [Lexicon] PCM 80 on the ugliest, most basic reverb preset, but we added in a mic I set up outside the studio.”
“It was up the staircase in front of my room. It’s about 50 feet away from the snare if you were to measure it. We had two APIs cranked and compressed. There’s no preset for that,” he smiles.
“I feel like you can borrow as much as you want from past productions, but you’ve always got to add something of your own. So we wound up with this tubby, recognizable reverb sound with something extra grit and depth going on.”
“I think that’s something to go for. These tones are compelling, but also slightly foreign. It can help keep you in the song in a very real way.”
To this end, Lerche says he was “conscious of trying to simplify things” this time, “leaving room in the arrangements for atmosphere, for a vibe,” which is something he says he’s never done in the past.
Unconventional sounds continue to pop up now and again; not to take center stage, but to ride shotgun with the ever-central vocal.
Bass guitar, deftly laid down by Lerche’s regular collaborator and co-producer Kato Adland, is often a satisfying standout.
Whether it appears as an unusually muted fuzz tone, the striking heartbeat outro of “Domino” or the solid and nimble driving force of “Private Caller,” the bottom end of this record often marries a retro sense for body and girth with the well-defined space and articulation of a modern production.
“With every song there was a careful calibration of the tones we were drawing on,” says Vernhes. “So for some songs, we might drive the bass amp a lot harder, but still keep it really, really quiet with a lot of super low-end. Sometimes we doubled it with this old upright piano that was run through an amplifier.”
With only three weeks to track and mix, many of these choices were made quickly and instinctively.
“We had to make judgment calls about tonality on the spot. In some ways it really helped us,” says Vernhes.
“Committing,” Lerche interjects. “Every step along the way.”
“We immediately got into the spirit of ‘let’s not dwell too much.’ If something didn’t work, we’d just scrap it and move on.”
“Some songs you can transform into something else if you really work at them,” Vernhes adds, “And some songs really have their own personality, and almost dictate the arrangement to you. These songs, they kind of knew who they were. So it was more about playing to their strengths than trying to rework them.”
To help speed along the process, Vernhes’ assistant, Tom Goady, would take the reins the first few hours of the day, while Kato and Sondre worked out new arrangement ideas. Vernhes would roll in around 3pm to bring a fresh set of ears, and new perspective that he could add as they tracked into the night.
“They were both really up for any sound,” says Lerche. “I think that’s important. And Nicolas and Tom could work so fast.”
Vernhes too, felt this distance helped. “I was only familiar with a little bit of Sondre’s work before he called me. He had done all these other records in Norway and LA with a regular crew of musicians, and I think this time he wanted something much different. “
“So instead of going back to check out all his earlier releases, I kind of just didn’t listen. I figured that’s what he needed from me, especially since Kato and [Sondre] were already so familiar.”
Lerche nods quickly in agreement: “Yeah, we wanted to work with someone who didn’t have that context for these songs. I think it was the only way to have much of a departure.”
Ultimately, the two were successful in creating some sense of departure, at least in tone, timbre and pacing. But at another level, Lerche is still quickly and easily identifiable as a songwriter. “I learned early,” he says, “that I can do a lot of different things and still sound like me.”
Those who hear the lead single “Private Caller” by itself might be less convinced that anything new is going on.
In public, Lerche once again leads with an inoffensive and immediately accessible track that feels a bit like a throwaway. The only change on this end of the spectrum is the window dressing: In a low budget music video, Lerche awkwardly lip-syncs into a lightbulb, in a direct quote of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.”
The video is clearly shot in Brooklyn’s longstanding hipster meat-market, Union Pool. These two flourishes, taken to together, seem more like clumsy and naive pandering to a new market than a step in a new direction.
However, taken as a whole, the strength and newfound subtlety of this record make these forgivable offenses. In spite of them, Sondre Lerche may find that the somewhat darker, under-glossed delivery of this commendable new album may win him favor with a new type of fan.
Brooklyn correspondent Justin Colletti listens to new releases every day of the week except Sunday. Here, he shares the twelve Spring releases that best broke through the noise and captured his imagination.
1. Booker T. Jones – The Road From Memphis
From 1962 to 1970, Booker T. served as one of the essential sidemen who helped shape the sound of classic soul and R&B. As part of Stax’s integrated house band he played back-up for Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, and Sam and Dave. As bandleader for the MGs, he brought instrumentals to the top of the charts with the iconic cut “Green Onions.”
Jones’ latest effort, The Road From Memphis is a rootsy hybrid of hip hop, funk, and soul that makes the rock/fusion hybrid of his GRAMMY-winning 2009 release Potato Hole sound gimmicky by comparison.
Even with his name on the cover, Jones maintains the soul of a sideman. His playing is casual, relaxed, almost conversational, as he cooks through a cover of Gnarles’ Barkley’s “Crazy” on the Hammond B3, or supports Sharon Jones on an original tune.
There’s little musical grandstanding on this record, which features an all-star band of ace musicians who stay firmly rooted in-pocket throughout.
The Road From Memphis was produced by ?uestlove of the Roots and Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliot Smith). It was recorded by Gabe Roth of Daptone (interviewed here over the winter), and features guest performances from Sharon Jones, Lou Reed, Matt Berninger of the National, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.
2. Dennis Coffey: Controlled Aggression
Here’s a release that reminds us why we should never look to television or glossy magazines for music recommendations. Although you might not think it by the looks of him, Dennis Coffey will melt your face off with the funk.
When he’s not busy swapping fashion tips with George Costanza or posing to reassure you he’d do a great job adjusting your tax returns, Coffey leads a double life as a former guitarist for Motown, and the man behind the steaming new release Controlled Aggression.
Thanks to the good graces of the internet, this unlikely gem of a record doesn’t have to go undiscovered. Click the link below to hear the track “Space Traveller,” selected as NPR’s song of the day on May 31st.
When listening, don’t be afraid to turn up your speakers. Not only does this cut feature an old-school sensibility when it comes to musicianship, it features a refreshing lack of the aggressive over-mastering that’s had musiophiles up in arms for more than a decade. In a welcome blast from the past, the louder you crank this record, the better it sounds.
3. Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts
Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore had a new release last month. This largely acoustic, gracefully orchestrated collection of songs was produced by Beck for Matador Records, and has music geeks across Generations X and Y asking, “Where the hell was this record when I was a teenager?”
In some ways, Demolished Thoughts is Moore’s equivalent to Beck’s Sea Change. Although much of this record is as wizened and reserved as Beck’s navel-gazing opus, the tone of Demolished Thoughts remains notably less melancholy than that easy touchstone.
Arrangements are generally sparse and intimate, with subdued strings that are startlingly pretty and never overwhelming. On the production end, the album’s tone is spacious and milky, unafraid to stay just a little boxy and decidedly natural.
4. Kate Bush: Director’s Cut
If you’re a Kate Bush fan who’s disconcerted by musical revisionism, you may have mixed feelings about Director’s Cut. On this album Bush revisits and revamps songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.
Unlike Brian Wilson’s 2004 revisit of the Smile sessions however, it’s doubtful any of these re-interpretations will be accused of ruining old favorites. Bush’s voice has stayed strong, and some of these cuts improve on the source material, which is largely culled from The Red Shoes, an album generally considered to be one of her weaker efforts.
After years of trying, Bush finally obtained permission to re-appropriate Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from the James Joyce’s novel Ulysses as the lyrics for this album’s opening track. It’s unusual to hear a woman of fifty-three take on some of the overtly sensual themes that drive the opening tracks on this record, but she does so with an effortless, unconcerned grace that belies her age.
So, is it worth listening? For those who are not yet fans, the now-classic 1985 album Hounds of Love is probably still a better place to start. (Like, yesterday.) For the already initiated? It’s definitely something to hear.
5. Eddie Vedder: Ukulele Songs
Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder has come out with a solo album. It consists exclusively of him playing songs he wrote for the ukulele.
Diehard fans of Vedder’s voice are likely to connect with the album’s intimate and un-ironic delivery. The rest of us could always use good excuse to gawk slack-jawed at our computers for a few minutes, wondering if our eyes are fooling us, so Vedder’s Ukulele Songs occupies slot 5 on our roundup of interesting spring releases.
But, is it good?
For a solo album that almost exclusively consists of Eddie Vedder playing songs he wrote for the ukulele, sure, it’s absolutely the best one I’ve ever heard.
How about compared to the rest of music throughout recorded history?
Well, it’s less weird than you might expect, and features strong, naked performances from a distinctive singer that you probably really love or can’t stand at all.
As for a rating? No matter which camp you fall in, Ukulele Songs is an odd, but well-realized effort that stands somewhere between the transcendent (Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” “Kind of Blue,” the first four Black Sabbath albums) and the laughably mediocre (Bruce Willis’ solo record, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Christmas album, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”).
6. Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part 2
There’s a good chance you heard about it when the Beastie Boys dropped a new album last month. If you missed it, you still have a chance to stream it below.
It’s all too easy to harbor low expectations for any album this far into the band’s career, but once again, the ‘Boys refuse to disappoint: “Hot Sauce Committee” plays out like the Beasties of Check Your Head meeting up with the Beasties of Hello Nasty to compare notes.
Although some disinterest can be expected from early fans whose tastes have changed over the decades, this record is sure to please the ears of anyone still ready for more high-powered and irreverent jams from America’s favorite bratty-New-York-whiteboys-turned-socially-conscious-hip-hop-all-stars.
7. Alfonso Velez: Alfonso Velez
Alfonso Velez is a stunning and rare find: an undiscovered Singer/Songwriter worth watching out for.
Mere moments into “Teddy,” the first cut on Velez’s self-titled LP, I found myself slack-jawed, remarking aloud: “Wow. Dude can sing.” Songs here feel like real performances, unfolding stories that sound refreshingly human and open up over time.
With a production aesthetic that’s informed by The Flaming Lips and Radiohead as much as it is by The Beatles and James Taylor, Marc Alan Goodman’s mixes on Alfonso Velez balance the organic with the epic, the subdued with the sublime.
8. Cults: Cults
Any journalist writing about Brooklyn-based band Cults is obligated to marvel over their “un-googleable name” and (historically) limited presence on social media.
Up until Sony picked up the band in response to the extravagant media buzz that surrounded their debut 7”, the band subsisted with a spare Bandcamp page and a text-only website that listed upcoming shows.
Bloggers marveled over their ability to ignite interest sans Facebook and Myspace, much like the rest of us wonder how we were ever able to meet in public at a pre-designated time before cellphones.
Blog-buzz aside, Cults are easily one of the more compelling new artists to release an album this spring.
Their sound is somewhere between the Ronnettes and Peter Bjorn and John. Co-producer and engineer Shane Stoneback provides giganticlly cloudy, reverb-drenched mixes that complement their casually cultivated air of mystery.
At their best, Cults offer simple, unpretentious, catchy pop tunes with a startlingly retro production aesthetic. After repeated listens there’s some question as to whether there’s a ton of substance behind the style. In the meantime, the style they do have is somewhat substantive in itself and thankfully, it’s of the sonic, rather than visual variety.
9. Sondre Lerche: Sondre Lerche
Vernhes, who’s explored distinctive and sometimes jarring sounds with Dirty Projectors, Black Dice, and Deerhunter, might seem like an unexpected choice for Lerche, an artist best known for his easy charm and earnest pop sensibility.
With Verhnes at the board and Kato Ådland co-producing, Lerche is able to embrace sonic colors in a more raw state than ever before. The new material is mature: both accessible and unusual, friendly to a casual listener, but challenging enough to attract a new kind of audience.
10. Here We Go Magic: The January EP
On this record pillowy textures and contrapuntal rhythms form a blurred bed of sound for Here We Go Magic songwriter Luke Temple’s ephemeral, high-reaching vocals.
From the first plodding bass notes of the opener “Tulip,” Here We Go Magic’s newest release doles out twenty-one minutes of big, fat chamber pop.
It’s dense, atmospheric, ambitious, and invites comparisons to some of the innovative work by Caribou and Grizzly Bear, or the most forward-thinking moments of 60s cult favorites The Zombies.
Like Pigeons before it, The January (covered here in May), stands a far cry from Temple’s sparse solo effort on HWGM’s self-titled debut. The January serves a satisfying soup of sound that asks for repeat listening and suggests an unexpected expanse of space between the speakers.
Listen to “Hands in the Sky” off The January here:HERE
11. Hotels: On The Casino Floor
Since I’ve taken it on to write about the twelve albums this Spring that at least broke through the noise, and at best, captured my imagination, it would be dishonest to leave the Seattle band Hotels off this list, even if I have worked with them on prior releases.
Hotels has a new album On The Casino Floor, and, associations aside, I think you should hear it. They’re easily among my favorite bands playing today.
If band names like Devo, Black Sabbath, Joy Division, Kraftwerk, Wipers and New Order randomly strung together in a sentence holds any appeal to you, this is the offbeat, electronic, post-punk, synth-heavy surf-rock band for you.
12. Bon Iver: Bon Iver
Is it just me, or do self-titled releases seem like a growing trend this year? If I had something profound to say about artists declaring their identity in a culture of fleeting interest I would. Until then: Gee. What’s that shiny thing?
Fans of the sleepiest moments of Iron & Wine and TV On The Radio may enjoy Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore effort. This is music that’s sometimes unusual, and perhaps more pleasant than it is engrossing.
Atmospheric, moody, bold-yet-unobtrusive, the laconic Bon Iver is a thoroughly well-realized album, even if it occasionally bores this reviewer to the point where he forgets he’s even listening to it.
Lady Gaga and the Great Race to Cloud Storage
In other news, you may have caught wind that Lady GaGa’s label was so afraid her sophomore album would fail to make waves, they decided to effectively bribe fans into buying it. Hawking the entire record for $0.99 and giving away 40 GB of storage on Amazon’s new cloud server, they managed to sell 1.5 million copies in total, including a reported 750,000 at the $0.99 cheaper-than-free price point.
If you haven’t yet seen the video for the lead single “Born This Way,” don’t worry. You’ll be fine.
GaGa takes post-modern pastiche to a fever pitch of ADD, referencing more often and more directly than Family Guy. The only problem is that it’s rarely funny (at least not on purpose) and she staunchly refuses to admit to her influences, unlike the early post-modern pop-master, Beck.
Fittingly, GaGa’s latest video begins with music that isn’t even hers. The video version of “Born This Way” opens with Bernard Hermann’s classic score to the Hitchcock thriller Vertigo, which she somehow makes sucky by adding some comically pretentious narration and half-baked visual imagery culled from Frank Herbert’s Dune.
To her credit, GaGa has the theater of music down to a certain degree. She’s followed the playbooks of Freddie Mercury, Madonna, and Britney Spears, but forgot the rule about occasionally putting out an inventive song. Even Britney had “Toxic.”
Once the actual music kicks in, the problem is not that it’s awful. Rather, it’s amazingly plain – befuddlingly mediocre. The actual single serves as a remarkably bland backdrop to over-the-top visuals that are generally too racy for children and at times too vapid for self-respecting adults.
Those who maintain that her first record featured a few worthy pop songs obscured by a questionable production aesthetic will be disappointed to find nothing here to approach even that level of “interesting.” When listened to with any seriousness, “Born This Way” makes Cher’s most questionable 80s moments seem hip and current.
For the few who have cast GaGa as a secret champion of counter-culture, this release continues to reframe hers as work that panders to the easily entertained rather than suggesting a shred of the subversive.
At best, GaGa may have been able to achieve a level of insta-kitsch to rival John Waters. Only this time, it’s by accident. – Justin Colletti
Vernhes, who’s explored distinctive and sometimes jarring sounds with Dirty Projectors, Black Dice, and Deerhunter, might seem like an unexpected choice for Lerche, an artist best known for his easy charm and sophisticated-yet-upbeat pop sensibility. Any cognitive dissonance washes away at first listen, however. This reviewer had the privilege of hearing some of the most immediately engaging work from either of these music-makers to date.
With Verhnes at the board, and Kato Ådland, co-producing, Lerche is able to embrace sonic colors in a more raw state than ever before. The new material is mature: both accessible and unusual, friendly to the listener, but challenging enough to attract a new kind of audience.
Although the record is well-sculpted, a decided lack of over-polish allows Lerche’s songs to breathe with a full range of depth and humanity only suggested in his prior releases. Look for their release and our full story in mid-2011. It’s gonna be good.