Who knew? While it would be patently false to call Sondre Lerche’s previous releases boring, nothing hinted at the energy and exuberance of the wildly successful Phantom Punch. His previous two releases, Two Way Monologue (2004) and Duper Sessions (2006), showcased, respectively, a Norwegian Nick Drake and Tony Bennett. Phantom Punch is markedly sped-up and amplified: Imagine if Elvis Costello (another key influence) had launched his career with Almost Blue and then followed it up with Armed Forces.
The Faces Down, Lerche’s backing band, provides a more than serviceable Pharmacists to Lerche’s Ted Leo. Guitarist Kato Adland, drummer Ole Ludvig Kruger and bassist Morten Skage have supported Lerche for most of his playing career but have never cut loose on a recording quite like this before. And Lerche has found the ideal producer in Tony Hoffer (Beck’s Midnite Vultures, Belle & Sebastian’s The Life Pursuit, Supergrass, Fischerspooner), a true connoisseur of danceable rock.
The title track-the album’s first single-is the most infectious rocker since Franz Ferdinand came around. Guitars are fuzzed-out bliss, the bass line positively Blondie-esque. “Well Well Well” starts as a zippy minor-key swing, veering into a breakneck chorus. “She’s Fantastic” is a sweet seventh-chord cabaret number, sung to the only gal he has eyes for.
Even Lerche’s slower-tempo tracks have a boldness that can be categorized as active balladry. The occasional shifts in pacing allow the music to catch its breath and every so often emphasize his ever-so-slightly thin but impassioned voice.
This incarnation of Sondre Lerche is charming, refreshingly free of the cynicism and casual misogyny so many sensitive dudes take cover in after writing yet another breakup song. The snarliest tracks still have a smile at the corner of the mouth.
Somewhere along the way, it became bad form for artists to change their stylistic modus operandi-the assumption is, presumably, that those artists lack a sense of identity. But I don’t care if this album sounds like anything else Lerche has recorded, and I won’t mind if he never makes a similar attempt again. On its own merits, Phantom Punch is an assured, absurdly tuneful record, and one of the best of the year thus far.