Two Way Monologue Sondre Lerche (Astralwerks, 2004)
American boy ingnues ... Over the past 10 years, we've offered up Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the brothers Hanson, and that histrionic little harpy imbecile Bright Eyes. The last time we managed to find an American teen-aged boy making listenable music was probably little Stevie Wonder, and even he had to grow up quite a few years to make something as brilliant as Songs in the Key of Life. Enter Sondre Lerche, from Bergen, Norway. At 19 years old, he put out his debut full-length Faces Down, a pretty but nondescript collection of chamber-pop lullabies, consistently pleasant but rarely engaging and marked by too-precious English-as-a-second-language elementary wordplay.
He may have pretty much blown his hype ticket on his debut, but that's fine, because it lets his sophomore album show itself as an uncannily likeable and sophisticated piece of work. He's improved remarkably, both more careful with his technique and more comfortable with his songs. Even his lyrics, once the least promising aspect of his work, are now top-notch. He starts the album over subtle, jazzy chord shifts with the remarkably funny understatement, "Down came the sky / And all you did was blink," his lovely voice effortlessly sliding in and out of a beautiful falsetto. The title track is an absolute masterwork, some kind of perfect Bacharach-influenced, garage-baroque Norwegian ska rock.
Lerche is fulfilling more promise than his listeners would have ever before given him credit. He's the best parts of his influences and contemporaries without their crutches and foibles: Serge Gainsbourg without the dirty-old-Frenchman vibe, Rufus Wainwright without the gay card (ostensibly), Nick Drake without that suicidal depression. He presents the only musical reason to consider Norway anything but "the black metal motherland," and for that, he deserves all the kudos he can get.
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The Cansecos The Cansecos (Upper Class, 2003)
For the past year, it's become widely apparent that Canada is producing basically the best music on the planet right now. Not only have they finally made up for Celine Dion, Bryan Adams and Our Lady Peace, but also, with their latest slew of brilliant indie pop, they've basically made up for the War of 1812. Bands like The Unicorns, Manitoba and Stars are starting to make their American cohorts wonder if there's something in the water, or more likely, the curds and beer.
The Cansecos are the newest out of the Toronto scene, and while they may not be quite as consistently brilliant as their aforementioned countrymen, the occasions when they're at the top of their game make such a glorious noise that it's probably unfair to the rest of their CD by comparison. Beautiful, isolated bits certainly rival, even surpass, the bulk of their scene-mates' catalogs. Observe the coda of "The Shore," in which a by-the-books electronic pop song suddenly throws the incredible loop of a non sequitur shout-out to Jamaica and then a ridiculously beautiful MIDI piano line and some hip-shake-inducing fake finger snaps. It's a beautiful, unpredictable move that makes for one of the best musical moments of the year so far.
It's a shame, then, that the second half of the album drags under the weight of too-plain beats, melodies and song structures. There just aren't enough surprises left after a while, and surprise is what recently made Canadian pop so vital in the first place.