Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche is in the midst of an identity crisis. While the lush and inventive pop of his 2002 debut Faces Down earned Lerche a Best New Artist award at the Norwegian Grammys, his success didn’t translate into U.S. sales. That’s not to say Lerche hasn’t gone without American praise – both Faces Down and 2004’s follow-up Two Way Monologue garnered a cult following of U.S. fans who swooned over his delicate tenor and Beatles-esque melodies. Lerche established himself as an emerging pop craftsmen of great potential.

Trevor Campbell
Those indie kids sure can dress. (Courtesy of Astralwerks)

On 2006’s Duper Sessions, Lerche did his best Chet Baker impersonation and recorded an acoustic jazz record, confusing fans and demonstrating artistic unpredictably. Duper Sessions, with its swinging, well-crafted tunes, was as humorous as it was endearing – a perfect birthday present for Mom.

On Phantom Punch, however, the laughter falls flat. Lerche, joined by The Faces Down, leaves behind the subtlety and craft of previous records in favor of a bare-bones, punchy rock sound. Unfortunately, to the Lerche fan, the results feel less like a phantom punch and more akin to a slap in the face.

If Lerche didn’t quite live up to Chet Baker on Duper, he certainly doesn’t live up to Elvis Costello on Phantom. On the high-strung and frantic rocker “The Tape,” Lerche’s vocal delivery is as forced as it is remarkably foreign to any of his previous croons. Lerche may be taking risks, but this doesn’t excuse the creepy, carnival-esque feeling that lingers at the end of the tune. The song also features the worst harmonica solo ever recorded.

On the ridiculously titled “Face the Blood,” Lerche and band fail to capture anything other than a misguided and agitated romp through shrill, distorted guitar chords. The chorus happens to be as singable as the theme from “Psycho.” As Lerche urges the listener to “face the blood again, and again, and again, and again,” it’s almost as if we’re being stabbed repeatedly. It hurts, Sondre. Please. It really hurts.

The title track begins with a hackneyed, pentatonic guitar riff, ushering in yet another pop tune so uncatchy it’s actually frightening. While the idea of psychotic disco in 3/4 time is indeed original, it sounds better on paper than on a record of any kind. In what appears to be a horrendous Hot Hot Heat impersonation, Lerche sings “You don’t wanna feel the Phantom Punch / Isn’t it already far too much?” He’s telling us what we already know – no, indeed, we don’t wanna feel it. Moreover, sampling a horse neighing in the middle of the bridge suggests even animals would be upset with this song (and who even knows if any were harmed during production).

On “Tragic Mirror,” Lerche momentarily returns to the refreshing familiarity of his acoustic guitar. His boyish falsetto, however, begins to wane a bit, and he sounds about as bored with the tune as the listener.

But the real tragedy of Phantom Punch is “Say It All.” Interestingly enough, the song itself isn’t to blame. On the contrary, it’s a splendid, ultra-catchy pop gem and brings Lerche’s subtlety back into the forefront. Joined by the gorgeous harmonies of Inara George, we find Lerche doing what he does best. Then, when Lerche croons, “You know the punch line – it’s all in the punch line,” emptiness sinks in. We discover the punch line – Lerche is completely capable of crafting infectious, sweeping yet subtle pop songs, and “Say It All” is only tune on the record which reflects his ability. This is no laughing matter.

Phantom Punch is the result of a songwriter with a huge amount of talent making some very poor musical decisions. If Lerche and crew can shake what might be a marketing campaign to attract a broader audience, and return to the subtle elegance of his previous efforts, there’s still hope for the singer-songwriter. As it stands, Phantom Punch is Lerche fans’ worst nightmare.

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