Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sondre Lerche: Heartbeat Radio

The Norwegian transplant Sondre Lerche, a music industry veteran at only 27, possesses considerable talent, but his new album Heartbeat Radio finds him working too hard toward no discernible end. The album is about love in its most mundane forms – passing the morning paper back and forth over tea, squabbling, driving, chatting. It’s a minor work for minor moods, but it mostly fails to achieve even its modest intentions.

There's a sort of ill-fitting grandiosity to the overall aesthetic -- strings swoon, Lerche's vocals keen, the arrangements build gradually to thundering crescendos -- but it's an empty largeness, music like an airplane hanger. Why all the drama? These aren't desperate or urgent songs. Lerche's virtues -- tight, varied instrumentation; gentle, literate guitar pop; smart and simple song construction -- are the virtues of smallness and care. The arrangements are admirable – odd, precise, elegant, the many modular transitions sudden yet seamless – but all the passion and bombast feel phony, put-on, manipulative. Lerche leans too hard on his pose as a wounded young Romeo.

The lyrics are barely worth mentioning, neither positive nor negative. Lerche knows how to fit words into song forms, inserting syllables and phrases with the same almost classical-minded precision he brings to his arrangements, but he seems to select words for their crisp and delicate phonetics, their graceful rhymes, with little regard for their meaning. This could work wonderfully if he would really abandon communication, turning his lyrics into tone-poems that interlock, puzzle-like, with his latticework songs, but instead he stays within a very dull mode of heartsick musings and pseudo-sophisticated mumblings. (The one notable exception is “Like Lazenby,” which is built around a baffling but somewhat delightful metaphor about the one-time James Bond.) His delivery is clipped and dry, almost sarcastic, and the conflict between his detachment and the gorgeous, endlessly swooning strings is a little bit intriguing, but I'm not sure that such dissonance is something that Lerche intended.

He’s at his best when he drops the Rufus Wainwright shtick and lets his natural charm and naivety shine through. “Words and Music,” his sunny little slice of Paul McCartney pop, tastes like biting into a cool, ripe orange. It’s the best song on the album, vulnerable and sweet and affectionate. It is, in its way, a masterpiece in miniature, perfect for a certain sort of warm, quiet moment, and it’s likely to find a small but permanent place in my life. It’s the exception, though; in general, the love songs don’t sound urgent, and the heartsick songs sound like they stem from an artful pose rather than any real pain. The aesthetic he seems to be pursuing is elegance at any cost; he achieves it handily, but the price is far too high. He sacrifices truth, sincerity, magic, and danger. While there are enough wonderful arrangements and flashes of brilliance to point the way towards a potential masterwork in the still-young Lerche’s future, Heartbeat Radio isn’t much more than supremely well-constructed background music. The album is smothered by care and clockwork.

The radio plays on and on; the heartbeat flat-lines.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bob Dylan: Christmas in the Heart

It opens with sleigh bells and a jaunty backing choir, and we're off into a fully realized Norman Rockwell painting, complete with roaring fireplace, children in stocking feet, and the jolly old grandpa around whom they've gathered. The grandpa is Bob Dylan, and yes, Bob Dylan is jolly. Holly jolly, even.

From the Currier & Ives-esque cover illustration to the Andrews sisters soundalikes singing backup, Dylan's charity album Christmas in the Heart is a full-on fruitcake. It's earnest and wholehearted and brimming with good cheer. There's a palpable joy in the man's withered croak, as he hobbles his crumbling voice over the some the most familiar terrain in American song. Dylan, he of the sharp jaundiced eyes and love-sick nihilism, has got the Christmas spirit, and he's got it bad.

Self-producing under his oft-used and suddenly very appropriate pseudonym Jack Frost, Dylan delivers the most straightforward Christmas album imaginable, dusting off the stalest pop forms, mothballed tropes and hoariest roasted chestnuts of Christmas' past. Outside of a few delightfully bizarre choices – the breakneck accordion polka of “Must Be Santa,” the tinge of a fake Hawaiian accent on “Christmas Island,” the way he sounds like a crazed street-corner vagrant haranguing the children in “Winter Wonderland” – he delivers the kind of lush, chintzy holiday showcase that’s generally better left to the likes of Michael MacDonald. The dissonance between his rough voice and smooth arrangement makes the album feel like something that you imagined in a dream.

It's a double shot of straight sentimental corn syrup, and it's the closest Dylan has come to crooning since "Nashville Skyline," his lovely 1969 country ode to domesticity. The years and cigarettes have had their way with the man's larynx, and he can't match the warm honeycomb baritone that surprised and confused his fans three decades ago – frankly, he often comes off as a lunatic warbling carols with almost terrifying conviction – but nevertheless, his damaged voice is full of warmth and sweetness. "Although it's been said many times, many ways… Merry Christmas to you," he sings, and he sounds like he means it more than Mel Torme ever did. For all the world, the record doesn't feel like a charity album or a goofball lark or an odd experiment -- it just sounds like the work of a dude who really, really loves Christmas.

Dylan doesn't strip the songs down, doesn't transform them into his signature dusted roots music. To the contrary: his smooth, stolid productions make the Bing Crosby versions sound spontaneous and lo-fi. There's something so wonderfully odd about the tension between Dylan's timeworn growl and the thick carpet of garland and wreath lain about him; it's as though a hard-bitten riverboat captain wandered into Macy's on December 23rd and swooned into a Yuletide trance, marveling at everything he saw, convinced that the old alcoholic in the red trim and fake beard was, in fact, Santa Clause. Dylan surrenders himself completely to the corniness, the sentiment, the whole Christmas ham without a wink. He sounds more committed, in fact, than he did on his last couple of albums. Christmas in the Heart is, in no particular order: delightful, silly, intimate in a somewhat phony way, gentle, cornball, crazy, dated, baffling and lovable. It’ll be played in my house throughout the month of December. For all of its goofiness, the record is a big, resounding affirmation: loud and clear, it says “Yes, Virginia.”

Thursday, October 8, 2009

O Pioneers!!!: Neon Creeps

O Pioneers!!! may not have many similarities with Walt Whitman, the great American poet from whom they take their name, but do have one thing in common: they are animated with joy. These Houston punks always sound like they're having a hell of a time playing their simple cranked up shout-rock, rendering even lyrics like "Forget about all the depression and all of the debt... I know I'm gonna die from it" anthemic and somehow redemptive. Their palpable pleasure is almost enough to carry their Neon Creeps LP. It's punk with the right attitude, a sense of humor, none of the finger-wagging politics or emo self-seriousness, and just enough melody to carry you from one fist-pumping chorus to the next. They're happy and angry and restless and all of the things a bunch of hopped-up kids should be. You like them, and you want to like their album.

Ultimately, though, it's only okay, marred by too many weirdly annoying moments and precious song titles. (See "Saved by the Bell Was a Super Good Show," the chorus of which is the word "DRAMA" sung over and over again, the singer inexplicably placing the accent on the word's second syllable.) Still, I'd like it if there were more records out there in this quotidian vein -- fleeting, honest, unself-conscious, funny, direct. Even another obnoxious title like "Chris Ryan Added Me on Facebook" obscures one of the most truthful kiss-offs this side of Bob Dylan. ("See I'm older now, and I don't give a damn if I ever talk to you again.") Like I said, I don’t really like the album – Eric Solomon’s voice kind of sucks, some of the tracks go on too long, everything starts to feel kind of samey, etc… But give it a shot anyway, maybe late at night on an empty highway. Your mileage may vary.