t’s just not possible to go around pretending to be a primitive. I turned my back on writing rock ‘n’ roll songs for a couple of years because I thought it was false; I knew these other chords, so I was being dishonest by not playing them. ‘I mustn’t put a diminished chord in!’ You know that kind of shit? The inverted snobbery of rock’n’roll.” -- Elvis Costello on Imperial Bedroom and Punch the Clock.
With Phantom Punch Sondre Lerche finally makes good on the promise of his talent; he’s mastered and polished his intuitive gift for melody and arrangement and rightly applied it to his most natural musical inclinations. Where last year’s Duper Sessions found Lerche and the Faces Down indulging his appetite for Cole Porter trad-pop, senior citizen dance night swing, and supper club jazz, Phantom Punch is stitched throughout with the essence of XTC, Argybargy-era Squeeze, and, of course, Costello himself. But where Costello’s Imperial Bedroom and Punch the Clock suffered from their flawed approach to arrangement and production (not to mention the songs being not really all that great) Lerche has found a way successfully to bestride the line between technically proficient deliberateness and his latent propulsive “punk” rock tendencies. This should be kind of a big deal.
The album has been advertised by Lerche as his attempt at a decidedly more “primitive” sound: songs driven by energy, enthusiasm, and no frills (read: no strings) arrangements toward a nameless and direct immediacy: like Costello in reverse. Still, there’s nothing particularly “primitive” about the songs of Phantom Punch. They’re all crafted with the same meticulous attention to detail and melody as anything in Lerche’s catalogue. Behind all the stuttering downstrokes and chaotic melodies you’ll find a frighteningly sophisticated approach to songcraft that’s been all but abandoned within the genre. You know, the lost chords: the voicings and progressions rock songs simply find themselves refusing to use; Costello was acutely aware of this (as indicated above) but with Phantom Punch Lerche has managed to almost flawlessly navigate his way around what Costello believed to be rock ‘n’ roll’s self-limiting melodic palate. In so doing, he’s delivered 11 forceful and aggressive songs—without sacrificing the endearing and innocent Norwegian romantic you know so well.
Inauspicious album opener “Airport Taxi Reception” fuses Duper Sessions’ lightheartedness with his previous albums’ soft-rock breeziness, but also adds a newfound sense of insistence for its chorus, with Lerche accenting each lines’ final word to present its title: “Cause I left my mind in the AIRPORT / My thoughts in a TAXI / My heart in RECEPTION / The last thing I saw was YOU.” It’s a bit misleading. As soon as “Airport Taxi Reception” ends we’re thrust downhill into an exhilarating 1-2-3 of “The Tape,” the soaring “Say it All,” and the album’s insistent off-kilter 6/4 fuzz-fuck title track. Each of these songs, along with the album’s most furiously urgent and best song, “Face the Blood” packs a driving gritty velocity into short and concise packages. The same Faces Down that only a year ago was jazzercising their way across 70 year old cabaret changes is now churning out relentless guitar rhythms that build momentum until they abruptly … suddenly … out of the blue STOP. All the while Lerche’s unhinged vocals, flying up and down and all around his melodies, match the band’s fervent energy. The whole record is practically like this.
When it isn’t like that, however, you get Lerche doing what he does best. The solo acoustic and heartfelt “Tragic Mirror” is a clinic in pop songwriting. It’s full of wise, economic chord choices and unexpected changes, engaging the listener until each section reaches its resolution. He’s toying with you. He takes this to even further extremes on the album’s ghostly slow-burning closer “Happy Birthday Girl” where his foreign chord voicings progress and develop through unexpected shifts, ultimately resolving into a wall of feedback.
Now, to be sure, this has all been on some pretty r*ckist-ass shit but Sondre Lerche’s formidable talent and Phantom Punch’s more stripped down approach has allowed him to only assert a song’s most immediate and best melodic possibilities. In the process he’s delivered the album he’s always been capable of. So, uh, primitive? Well, it’s simply not possible to go around pretending.
Reviewed by: Barry Schwartz
Reviewed on: 2007-02-08