Sondre Lerche: Faces Down

Sondre Lerche
Faces Down

By now, you’ve probably heard some of the spin surrounding Norwegian wunderkind Sondre Lerche Vaular. Let me recap it in a nutshell: boy is weaned on the ’80s pop played by his three older siblings (including a particular fascination for local sensations A-ha), learns to play guitar at age nine, starts writing songs at 14, meets up with Norwegian producer H.P. Gundersen (who basically takes him under his wing and exposes him to whole new musical universes), and by age 16 writes what has become Faces Down, his stellar debut album.

First released in Norway in 2000 and the rest of Europe in 2001, Faces Down finally came to the U.S. courtesy of Astralwerks in the fall of 2002. By now the boy wonder is 20 (though he still looks younger than that) and touring the states — but anyway you approach his story, there’s no denying his ability to write impressive music far beyond his years.

With a voice that sounds at times like Donovan Leitch, at other times like Rufus Wainwright light (Broadway, but less drama and turbulence), Sondre Lerche goes against the grain of what might be deemed commercial music for those of his generation. Listen to this CD and you hear a range of music that draws on whisper pop of the early 1960s, Burt Bacharach, Van Dyke Parks, Brazilian pop and even some Tin Pan Alley. There are strings, theremin, female accompaniment, and a number of unexpected elements throughout. Even the alternately happy and melancholy lyrics are somewhat accomplished and obscure. All told, this is not your normal 16-year old.

The CD opens with the semi-bossa nova retro rhythms of the arresting mood piece “Dead Passengers”, a strange consolation about solace in a time of greed and fear coming from dead passengers who will come to your home and guide you. There is plenty of eerie synth programming (courtesy of H.P. Gundersen) and sweet backing vocals from Leslie Ahern.

The masterpiece of this near hour’s worth of music is the instant classic “You Know So Well”. Lerche’s voice is delicate and unpredictable, enveloped by strings, musing on the foibles of chance and opportunity in a relationship that has yet to happen, in a race against time. This is a beautiful song, and its beauty becomes even more apparent with repeated listening.

Percussive chords drive the rhythms of the simpler arrangement that is “Sleep on Needles”. This is a dialogue about speaking the truth and not holding back. There’s a certain irony when one considers how young he was when he wrote: “I’m coming down to tell you what I know / To say what’s real, to let you know / Where I have been and how I had to sleep on needles / You’ll believe you are hard / Sleep on needles / And hear only the truth”.

“Suffused with Love” examines the hit-and-run running around of the social scene in a song long on lyrics. This is another simple arrangement of vocals, guitar and synth. The lumbering and ponderous “Side Two” is a cryptic bare-bones song about those who lived through execution, collecting votes (?) “about the tortured young and old”.

Thankfully, this leads into the bright strains of the bouncy Cole Porter-ish “Modern Nature”. Again, Lerche’s lyrics are about truth and relationships and taking a wait-and-see attitude in determining what’s “meant to be”. This vocal duet with Lillian Samdal also recalls the like of Elvis Costello’s “The Milk of Human Kindness”.

It’s a trip through time on this CD from track to track. With “Virtue and Wine” we’re back in 1960s bossa nova-land with a tip of the hat to more than a few others along the way. This is a song about chemistry, the frustrations of daily life, and the pain of being left in a relationship (“I am nothing without you”).

Building from a soft guitar ballad into something far more interesting with Lillian Samdal’s backing vocals and superb production, “On and off Again” lets Lerche explore his lower vocal register as he contemplates much of the same life/relationship ground as in other songs (but hey, he was only 16 when writing this): “Nothing stays the same / I stand in my own way”.

The only real interest in “No One’s Gonna Come” comes rhythm-wise in its relatively frenetic chorus, and in the unusual backing vocals by Helen Eriksen. “All Luck Ran Out” takes many of these same elements and more (even some pedal steel) and puts them together far better. It’s a more traditional song, catchier, a sideways commentary on the wrongs of thievery, and probably as close to commercial as Lerche gets.

“Things you call Fate” starts as a prime example of how Lerche might sound in concert — it’s just simple guitar and vocals, unadorned. However, an electronic synth hook that leaps out and twice grabs you by the ears interrupts this pleasant folky-but-wordy treatise. Note that the fadeout takes just shy of forever (the song clocks in at 9:25). A strange but interesting add-on solo track called “Rosebud” is included in the U.S. version of the CD.

Faces Down is a clever and impressive debut from this young native of Bergen, Norway, who had a lot of expert help from the likes of H.P. Gundersen and the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan (who arranged the strings for three of the tracks). Gundersen and Joergen Traeen surround the lad with a host of accomplished musicians playing lush and intriguing arrangements.

At 20, Lerche is a cool customer who takes his music seriously, but who is also having fun touring. He’s keen to find new ways to write songs, and to keep the passionate process of songwriting interesting. Judging from this first release, there should be a long career of melodic, interesting music ahead.