[30 March 2006]
From Norah Jones to Michael Bublé, retro jazz vocalists have become a fixture in the pop world. Whether they’re performing original tunes or old jazz standards (à la Rod Stewart’s nostalgic American Songbook collection), artists young and old are discovering a lucrative market fuelled by nostalgic baby boomers who’ve decided it’s finally okay to like their parents’ music. The newest kid to pick up on this trend is Sondre Lerche, the cherubic Norwegian pop singer who brought us two crisp, Donovan-inspired records, 2002’s Faces Down and 2004’s Two Way Monologue. His newest, (attributed to Sondre Lerche and the Faces Down Quartet) Duper Sessions, was conceived spontaneously when recording for Lerche’s new rock album was delayed six months. The result is what you’d expect from a confessed Chet Baker devotee: a snappy, kitschy album full of original jazz songs that do little to distinguish themselves from those that inspired them. Not to say it isn’t funny, jaunty, and charming. It’s just not that special.
Sondre Lerche is better suited to this style than most. Like his contemporary Norah Jones, he has a timeless vocal quality, and he is actually a more talented, mature songwriter than Jones. His smooth voice glides easily into falsetto, and he never ceases sounding cool. The infectious opener, “Everyone’s Rooting for You”, and the sweet “(You Knocked Me) Off My Feet” are examples of how Lerche transcends the genre. They are good pop songs, plain and simple. Mostly, however, the album sounds like what it is: a group of musicians having fun imitating their heroes.
This feeling is especially strong in the lyrics. Lerche has never been the most literal writer, but his words here come across as a contrived bit of affectation. They are pretty love songs, but they are written in the vague language of the past. For example, in “You Sure Look Swell”: “I don’t want to lecture you dear/ I just want to be perfectly clear/ You amaze me whenever you’re near/ Oh how do you do it, dear?” Now this is obviously meant to be cute fun, but it’s frustrating coming from an artist like Lerche, whose best pop songs (“Stupid Memory”, “You Know So Well”) seem to come from someplace deeper.
Don’t get me wrong, Duper Sessions is still a pleasing album. I appreciate both kitsch and hero-worship in music, but I’m left wondering why musicians are obsessed with imitation. Unlike other genres, this type of jazz never seems to evolve. Why couldn’t Lerche tinker with his arrangements and maintain his quirky pop style? The moment he gets serious with a quartet, he feels he must ape his predecessors, down to the no-frills cover of “Night and Day”. Had he incorporated his modern lyrics and rock style into these songs, we’d have something really special on our hands. Instead we have a Norwegian rock musician in his early 20s crooning about nightingales and pianos. Duper Sessions isn’t so much a departure for Lerche as it is a side note to his career. Songs like “Minor Detail” and “Once in a While” are very similar to jazzier cuts from Faces Down, though Lerche’s best songs are still those that lean more toward rock. The ballads “Dead End Mystery” and the aforementioned “(You Knocked Me) Off My Feet” stand out on the album, showcasing Lerche’s signature mopey sweetness, while the fast-paced finger-snappers slip by unnoticed.
The main reason this little album is likeable despite its nostalgic play-acting is this: Lerche has a voice and manner that makes hearts melt, no matter the genre. He could be singing selections from Cats on a street corner and girls would be lining up to give him their phone numbers. In an age of pathetic male-penned prom anthems (I’m talking to you, James Blunt), this means more then you might think. That in mind, I feel I should give him a break (who can resist those puppy dog eyes?) and take Duper Sessions for what it is: a hard working guy taking time off to fool around with his friends. He’s giving us our next rock record, so we critical fans should just relax and let our pants be charmed off. As he sings to his lady love in “Everyone’s Rooting for You”, “Every smile and every single grin/ Conquers and captures their hearts and minds/ You can’t not win!”