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Super-Duper Sondre

Last year, while recording his new album in L.A., Sondre Lerche swung by the offices of his record label and performed an impromptu showcase in the kitchen. It was a stripped-down, boy-and-his-guitar set — no frills, no clutter. It was wonderful. He took requests from the crowd — label employees and a handful of journalists, all reduced to swooning acolytes by the end of the first number — and charmed everyone with self-deprecating banter, including a playful dig at James Blunt. (After an especially lusty ovation for his rendition of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” he quipped, “You’re beautiful. It’s true!”) In addition to fan favorites (“Everyone’s Rooting for You,” “Faces Down”), he premiered new songs (“The Tape,” “Tragic Mirror”) that he’d just recorded, including a ripping cover of Thomas Dolby’s “Europa and the Pirate Twins.” Lerche admitted that he’d been hesitant to record “Europa,” unsure of what its reception might be, but explained that the more he listened to the original the more he loved it. (He said his studio version might appear as a bonus track on a CD single or EP at some future date.)

Born in 1982, the Norwegian Lerche was barely potty-trained when Dolby was on the charts, so his discovery and embrace of Dolby’s music was an off-center clue to the direction of the new album, which follows on the heels of his 2006 jazz-and-standards offering, DuperSessions. What he’s homed in on is Dolby’s keen storytelling more than his sound — which is fitting for a young man whose own lyrics are consistently sharp and literate. Sonically, Lerche’s new album is inspired by another strain of ’80s pop: think vintage Elvis Costello; the great and undervalued Marshall Crenshaw; the genre-shifting Paul Weller and even Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame. The smart boys, the clever boys. Those influences — as well as the stylistic DNA imparted by the likes of the Beach Boys, Prefab Sprout and A-Ha — were apparent right from the start of Lerche’s career, but they’ve been punched up by pronounced punk energy, some shrewdly woven Brazilian rhythms and a maturation of Lerche’s songwriting skills.

On Phantom Punch, that means steady, hard-pounded drums, energetically jangly guitar, and lyrics that are playful and insightful, poetic but not precious. Producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Belle & Sebastian, Air, Supergrass) lets Lerche’s glorious voice be, for the most part — but juices things up in just the right moments with mixing-board wizardry. Hoffer underscores but doesn’t force the droll humor that often crops up in Lerche’s lyrics and vocal delivery. On “Say It All,” Lerche jaggedly layers his phrasing in the chorus, dropping the ends of lines then catching up and matching the tempo by drawing out or swallowing the next word. He’s clearly having a blast behind the mike. Phantom’s high point is “Tragic Mirror,” a wistful narrative of male introspection and self-recrimination. It’s one of those songs/tracks that is so assuredly complete, it seems to exist out of time — to have been around forever. It’s just Sondre and his guitar, singing, “Is a man his own tragic mirror/capable of such crimes he is scared to look at himself too long at a time .?.?./Is a man really worth the attention, so mature but so dumb in broad daylight?” Then he shifts into the sweetest, most soulful falsetto for the chorus: “Now somehow you’ve got to smarten up/act like nothing’s gonna break you .?.?.”

Exquisite.

SONDRE LERCHE | Phantom Punch | Astralwerks