An unabashedly dirty electric guitar riff opens “Phantom Punch”, the title track on Sondre Lerche’s latest release. The 20-odd notes pop with rhythmic intensity and drums enter with piercing snare hits and biting high-hat figures. Lerche, firmly planted in his middle register, begins to sing. His heady tenor sounds clipped and highly enunciated: borderline talking.
This new feel — the loud guitars, the change in vocal timbre — seems like a rejection of the singer’s previous work. The sweet string arrangements which formed the bulk of his first two records — 2002’s Faces Down and its follow-up, Two Way Monologue — are gone. Lerche used a clean guitar sound, a tinkling piano and a walking bass on Duper Sessions, and those are nowhere to be found. But peel away the outer pop/rock layer of Phantom Punch, and everything in Lerche’s catalog appears.
On Phantom Punch, Lerche has learned to incorporate elements from his other albums without overloading the listener with allusions to his influences. “Tragic Mirror”, a fragile acoustic number that slowly builds in dynamics and background clamor, belongs on his earliest releases. “Airport Taxi Reception” bubbles over with syncopated rhythms and bouncy phrasing, a close cousin to the songs on Duper. But his latest approach — a stripped-down rock sound with undercurrents of bossa nova — is still in its nascent stages. Watching his repertory arc is seeing a style in progress. What started as high school uncertainty has bloomed into guarded self-assurance.
For the singer, developing his sound has been a four-CD process, and it’s been done in front of the world. In this way, Lerche is akin to a child actor growing up on TV — viewers across the globe see every zit, every awkward moment. Like Mark-Paul Gosselaar in the early ’90s or Joseph Gordon-Levitt during his tenure on Third Rock from the Sun, Lerche is maturing in front of everyone. Trapped under the sound on his first records, weighed down by his influences, Lerche is searching for his own voice.
When child stars grow as actors, they progress to more demanding roles. Gosselaar made the transition from teen television to NYPD Blue, and Gordon-Levitt has taken to movie dramas, including 2005’s Brick — movies that require a different style than comedies like Angels in the Outfield and Beethoven. Lerche, however, has taken the opposite route. While his early work focused on heavy string arrangements and a lush atmosphere, he has settled on rock, traditionally a haven for the not-so-serious.
Lerche’s ability to change, his security in adding new parts to an already lauded sound, came to him not in the form of years of on-the-job training, but in the guise of Elvis Costello. Accompanying Costello on a 12-city tour in the spring of 2005, Lerche learned how to shed his serious sensibilities. After the tour, Lerche recorded Duper, a stripped-down, introspective work. The music was full of jazz chords and subtle swinging grooves — ideas he had been toying with since the beginning, but with a more deliberate touch.
The musical growth showcased on Duper overshadowed the occasional ballad misstep. From the first song, a new sound emerged. There were still necessary adjustments — in the first three tunes he offered three different singing styles — but Lerche had found his place. On Phantom Punch, he adds overdriven guitar licks and huge snare backbeats to this sound, thickening it in the middle.
For all the progress the record represents, Punch is a schizophrenic release. On one hand, Lerche wants his music to feel confrontational and loud. But part of him still imitates influences like the Beach Boys, XTC and Prefab Sprout. “John, Let Me Go” and “She’s Fantastic” are so entrenched in this idol worship that they immediately stand out. These are tributes, not Lerche songs. For “John”, Lerche affects a tonal color comparable to that of former XTC lead singer Andy Partridge, and the sampled intro sounds cliché and dated. “She’s Fantastic” is too poppy for its own good and would have fit better on Costello’s maiden release, My Aim is True.
Instead of representing a departure from a strict musical style, Phantom Punch signals more of what’s to come. Though Lerche is still learning, his exploration in rock has helped establish who he is as a musician. Having already exhausted the use of rich string accompaniments, he has moved on. Lerche, a man who spent his childhood in serious roles, is ready for comedy.