Technically, I’m supposed to be living in Guam right now. In March of 2003, Sondre Lerche was playing the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, so I cruised over to a friend’s house to have a few beers before the show. As it gets later and later, my buddy asks if we shouldn’t go catch a cab. “It’ll never sell out,” I say, adding, “If it does, I’ll move to Guam.” One $20 cab ride later, we waltz up to the door to find that fateful sign: “Sold Out.” I’m still continually pestered as to whether I’ll move to Agana or to somewhere a little more rural. Lesson learned: Sondre Lerche is not to be underestimated.
His 2002 record, Faces Down, was a triumphant debut. His gentle voice filled songs that bounced from Cole Porter to Burt Bacharach, but the songs often became muddled when Lerche got ambitious and tried to go symphonic. If I had learned nothing in the past year, I’d assume that Two Way Monologue would fall into the same trap, but I’m not (always) a dummy. Lerche’s sophomore release treads similar ground as Faces Down, but does so in a much more lucid and confident fashion. Keeping it simple serves Lerche well, as his undeniable talent as a songwriter shines brightly on what is one of the best releases so far in 2004.
Lerche literally picks up right where he left off; the short instrumental opener “Love You” uses the little guitar riff from “Things You Call Fate,” which ended Faces Down. (The bonus track on the CD version of Faces Down never happened, you hear me? Never happened.) After that warm-up, the flowing “Track You Down” makes it clear that Lerche has learned a few things. It’s quiet and understated, filled with vulnerable lyrics: “I take it you are afraid / Of everything I am and some things I am not / A fear I share before I go to bed.” And instead of blasting away with strings and synthesizers and electric guitars, Lerche is content to let a lone violin pop its head in toward the end of the tune.
“Days That Are Over” reveals Lerche’s love affair with Steely Dan, as background bongos and scattered falsettos combine for a groove that can only be described as “smooth, in the Barry White sense.” Lerche whips out some raspy Louis Armstrong vocals at the beginning of the dreamy “Wet Ground,” which sounds like it was sung by an entire chorus — until you read the liner notes, which read simply, “Sondre Lerche: all voices and instruments.” But the highlight has to be “Stupid Memory,” as its pattering drums and pedal steel provide an alt-country canvas for Lerche’s perfect melody that is easily the best moment of straight-up pop music I’ve heard since Chutes Too Narrow.
I’ll stop short of calling Two Way Monologue a masterpiece; for all its moments of greatness, it’s by no means flawless. The Norwegian’s lyrics are still occasionally suspect (the title track’s momentum gets stuffed by clunkers like ” ‘Cause I’m optionless and turkey-free and blind,”), and in a couple instances the tracks simply run out of ideas. But Monologue is much more consistent than Faces Down, and that consistency means that Lerche is beginning to find his voice. It’s hard to believe that anyone could improve on an album of this caliber, but I’m not about to doubt him. I don’t think Guam has too many live music venues.