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Sondre Lerche

Faces Down (Astralwerks)

Call him precocious or wise beyond his years, but Sondre Lerche is hardly your typical 19-year-old songwriter. While most barely legal bards are likely to bang out three-chord tunes about girls, drugs and the burden of being perennially misunderstood, Lerche has come up with a collection of luxurious, grown-up pop songs. Armed with a velvety tenor that infuses his lyrics with an almost off-putting sense of calm, he stops listeners in their tracks with lines like these (from "Virtue and Wine"): "It's morning when she gets up / She puts on Lionel Richie, I've already had enough / The queues are long, guess I am wrong / This chemical environment is getting out of hand." For all his candor, Lerche plays his cards close to the vest: There's no telling whether he's talking about sexual chemistry or the pharmacological kind. Time and again throughout the record, he veils his confessions behind oblique couplets such as "When there is fear you won't have to cry / Napkins are here, they'll dry your eyes / And blind them, and blind them" (from "Dead Passengers").

Perhaps Lerche's reticence reflects his background. Though he sounds vaguely British, he's actually Norwegian, and a typically Scandinavian reserve undercuts his most effusive moments. While Lerche's reference points are familiar staples of Anglo-American folk and rock -- Nick Drake, the Velvet Underground and Leonard Cohen -- Sean O'Hagan of Stereolab and High Llamas fame adds buoyancy to the proceedings via his airy string arrangements. O'Hagan's characteristic space-lounge style makes a perfect fit for Lerche's own predilection for Brazilian pop, cool psychedelia and the Beach Boys' sunny shine.

"Dead Passengers" reads like a road map of the rest of the album, moving from measured bossa nova to overdriven guitar and squalls of theremin. On Faces Down Lerche sidles from the kind of guileless, string-and-guitar balladry that marked Drake's Five Leaves Left to a vision of garagey power pop the Strokes wish they could pull off. Whereas the latter group once asked Is This It?, Lerche's record provides the answer: This is it, one of the year's most affecting and endearing albums, a perfect pop gem.

 
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