March 11, 2004

Sondre Lerche: Talking to Himself

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The last major confrontation with Norway was the Nielsson Affair of 1915. In that notorious encounter, American troops were infiltrated by a Norwegian agent working for Austria. Norwegian indie-rock starchild, Sondre Lerche, continues this legacy, treasonously using our own weapon against ourselves with that most dangerous and traditional of American musical forms: flagrant plagiarism. Of course, pillaging is no stranger to modern rock. The Strokes may sound like a synthesis of Lou Reed and The Cars, and The Hives may sound like a synthesis of The Sonics and Chuck Berry, but they escape condemnation precisely because juxtaposition is often innovation. Lerche is a more perplexing case. As on his debut album, 2002’s Faces Down, he draws upon more than three decades of classic overbearing folk sincerity, ruffled troubadour haughtiness, doo-wop charm, and glam-rock smarm. Yet he rarely molds it into the coherency or urgency those genres thrive on, segregating them to a few bars, and then moving on to some other arbitrary sound. He does not synthesize his influences; he merely amasses them without agency, anxiety, or caution.

Though his vocals bear comparison to such masterful fey waifs as Nick Drake or Elliott Smith, it’s also able to track the distance from indie-rock insouciance to ear-shattering, American-Idol histrionics. As most of the album sporadically and disconcertingly oscillates through these two moods, it becomes a bit cumbersome for the listener: you’re either forced to expand your tastes enough to be comfortable with both processed operatic schmaltz and ingratiatingly rasping folk, or you have to sit patiently and wait for Lerche to get to the genre you asked for. And though he inevitably does, flawlessly and entertainingly performing both the inflection and personality of the genre he’s copying, it’s less like music and more like reserving a seat at an overpopulated fancy restaurant: you have a great time when you’re actually seated, but it sometimes hardly seems worth the trouble.

His lyrics, on the other hand, are truly original. Lerche is the first person to inadvertently combine Dada poems with Bacharachian compositions. I feel sort of bad assailing a foreigner for not understanding my language, but some of these lyrics are inexcusable. “Pretzel tears” may be ok if you’re Jimi Hendrix, but it’s probably not appropriate for gut-wrenchingly soft baroque odes.

On “Track You Down,” Lerche lets loose one of his poignant stanzas: “You saw me/ And I saw you/ And you were naked/ Which was weird.” If you enjoy this sort of substantive complexity in your music, Two-Way Monologue is for you. And that’s when he’s not claiming he’s “optionless and turkey-free” on the title track.

It’s a shame that these lyrics are almost always audible over the frail instrumentation that reclines through most of the album. Nevertheless, mindless duplication has produced lots of good music, and when Lerche really puts some work into it, he can write songs (or at least fragments of songs) as essential as anything off The Velvet Underground’s first album or Stephen Malkmus’s solo work. Like all large stockpiles of vibrant and virile permutations of rock and folk, it’s relaxed and accessible.

Still, one wishes Lerche had been able to do something with these snatches, instead of simply watching them pass by. Making great pop and mimicking great pop are both surely enjoyable, but if you’re in dire need of this sort of nostalgic genre-hopping, you can get by with a CD changer, not a full band and a pale complexion.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt