Sondre Lerche

Timothy G. Merello

Sondre Lerche's music is not so much a reflection on existential teen angst as a search for meaning and identity on the cusp of life’s grand tour.

Sondre Lerche

Sondre Lerche

City: Chicago, Il
Venue: Park West
Date: 2007-11-20

Chicago’s Park West is an utterly lovely space. There’s nary a bad seat in the house. The stage is large and wide, opening to a dance floor (tonight filled with tables for this intimate show), then rising with tiers of small, cozy, black-leather booths before ultimately giving way to barstool seats. Filled to capacity, the Park West probably holds a good thousand people. It’s not the kind of venue I’d expect Norwegian pop singer and songwriter Sondre Lerche to play; yet, from the moment the young guitar troubadour took the stage, I understood why this site was a welcome match for Lerche’s lovely lilt. Though short of critical mass, the turnout was impressive. Most of the dance-floor seats were filled with teens and pre-teens -- the boys skinny and nerdy, disheveled in hair and dress, while the girls sported hippie fabric layers and ballet shoes. The booths and tables were peopled with a mix of twenty and thirty-somethings, including the occasional bald head. Where are all these people finding out about Mr. Lerche? To my knowledge, no commercial Chicago radio station has ever played a note of his fascinating mix of bossa nova rhythms, swinging hot jazz, giddy guitar licks, and shimmering pop. Did all these people catch the two-sentence shoutout in Gourmet magazine some years ago? (It named “Two Way Monologue” the ultimate soundtrack for the hip dinner party.) Lerche, dressed casually in jeans, t-shirt, white sneakers, with bandanna tied insouciantly about his neck, seemed truly overjoyed that so many people had turned out to hear him and his humble guitars. He opened the night with “Don’t Be Shallow”, an up-tempo strummer with stuttering riffs and falsetto vocals. Buoyed by the audience’s warm welcome, Lerche expressed his awe at what he declared “a beautiful room.” Dispensing with greetings, Lerche slipped into the skin of cabaret crooner -- strong but hushed. On the sweet “After All”, his galloping guitar, limber and languid, matched beautiful vocal phrasings which seemed to swirl like liquid smoke. Proving himself a modern-day Cole Porter, a tunesmith extraordinaire, Lerche showcased his fanciful wordplay on “Everyone’s Rooting for You”. His voice veritably shimmied out the words: “effortlessly flabbergasting/ so far from what you’re suggesting/ girl, that grace is everlasting.” Spurred by the crowd’s raucous hoots and shouts, Sondre swung through a series of jazzy riffs, attacking his guitar with mad joy. Trading the traditional acoustic guitar for his gold, electric hollow-body, Lerche shifted into rock mode for Phantom Punch pop rocker “Airport Taxi Reception”. This move begged the question: how can one man combat the absence of a band, the dearth of conjoined twang and thump? I couldn’t help wanting more instruments on this one. As if reading my mind, Lerche raced to the finish, singing and playing with a frenzied earnestness. Sticking with the snarl and bark, Lerche then attacked his ax on “I Say a Little”. Displeased with the tuning, he begged the audience’s patience and apologized: “I have to start this one again.” Engaged and revitalized, Lerche put a dazzling spark on this rave-up, impressing his fans with stinging guitar licks and wrenching, raspy singing. There are two things I must remind myself of throughout the show: Lerche is writing all these wry, witty, catchy lyrics in English, a language not his mother tongue. Secondly, he is only twenty-five years old. I’d known he was young, but learned his exact age only when he confessed that he was born the same year Elvis Costello released Imperial Bedroom. The statement came as a prefix to a cover of Costello’s “Human Hands”, Lerche’s version disquieting in both its beauty and lightness. But I digress. His youth does not belie his songwriting skill. Rather his doe-eyed fascination with music only bodes well for a long career spent in the service of writing engaging, memorable pop tunes. How many people can write poignant pop ballads like “Maybe You’re Gone” when they’re sixteen? Moreover, how many songwriters would confess such a thing as they launch into said tune? Lerche did; he hides from no one. This song in particular was impressive in its maturity: here was not existential teen angst, but a true search for meaning and identity in the life of young man on the cusp of life’s grand tour. And Lerche delivered it with disarming sincerity. Rarely have I seen a singer so excited to be sharing time with the audience. At times, Lerche’s show seemed more like a visit with an old friend who is bursting at the seams to tell you what’s been happening in his life. Still riding high after scoring a major motion picture, the highlight of Lerche’s year “thus far” he confessed was “going to the Hollywood premiere of Dan in Real Life and getting my picture taken with just about everyone from the cast of The Office.” This moony-eyed confession prefaced a three-song interlude of tunes Lerche wrote for the film. “Be Prepared to Be Surprised” and “My Hands Are Shaking” were both gems, brilliant, bright, and shiny. The latter tune, a real burner, was poignant in its ache and tremble, in Lerche’s rollicking guitar and impassioned pleas and declarations that “my hands are shaking from carrying this torch/ carrying this torch for you.” Unfortunately, “I’m O.K.” did not burn; it smoldered. Tragic and lethargic, the song did not cross over to the live setting well, perhaps apropos of its presence as background music to a film. Despite this small misstep, Lerche’s big night sparkled. He proved that a voice and a lone guitar can still translate beautifully live, whether through the lyricism of jazzy numbers like “(I Wanna) Call It Love”, the surge and strum of “Dead Passengers”, or the jittery, pulsing, nervy singalong of “Two Way Monologue”. I can’t say I didn’t see “Modern Nature” coming as his encore, but I was still delighted. When I first saw him do this number at the Double Door, the audience’s harmony vocals stunned me. Here, though, expected and on cue, the warmth of the group’s voices rang even more true. Believe it or not, I even saw three of the security guards swaying in time to the music. Delightful, delicious, de-lovely indeed.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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