Norwegian singer songwriter and guitarist Sondre Lerche has come a long way since his debut album Faces Down in 2001. Now, eight years on and five albums (including a movie soundtrack) later, Lerche releases his most eclectic album Heartbeat Radio. Featuring a plethora of ideas, textures and sounds, and Lerche’s best and most consistent vocal performance, his sixth album has much to admire but also a lot of twee, wistful romantic musings that quickly becomes trite and overbearing.
Comparison can quickly be drawn to Rufus Wainwright, although arguably Lerche is a better singer. He doesn’t, however, write better songs. And Heartbeat Radio highlights the good and bad of a clear talent, which is realised the most when a single idea stays true and focused and is not polluted by too much romantic wandering. One redeeming feature of all this is a tendency to transcend genre and style; Lerche is a bit of everything without being too much of anything; a bit like Jason Mraz. This was something so noticeable on his debut Faces Down and has stayed with him through the years.
Heartbeat Radio is propped up with a trio of solid pop songs. The first is the wonderful cool jazz of I Cannot Let You Go. From the subtle funky chorus to the sweet backing vocals it’s a great moment of clutter-free song writing. Lerche has a unique way with words as the line “The rubber band is wearing thin; bursting as reality kicks in” proves. Could be anything, or nothing. Or whatever you want it to be. Easy To Persuade is just as great, shimmering guitar pop that breaks into a rare horn section and the upbeat yet downbeat Almighty Moon, the weakest of the three, is lifted with a jolly chorus.
Obvious highlights aside, the rest of Heartbeat Radio is, sadly, a patchy affair. Opener Good Luck ambles through the verses accompanied by some great guitar work but the flat chorus drags it down. Then after a spirited half-time guitar break, strings take over and it all gets a bit mad. The frantic ending is a like a drunken night out; starts fun but soon descends into chaos. The title track is far too self-involved and gratuitously indulgent. “Tell me what you think about this song…?” is just asking for trouble. After that you have to get it spot on, especially when you repeat the demand into the last minute. But nothing happens. Don’t Look Now tries the same start/stop approach with added jangling guitars and a good, if repetitive, instrumental outro.
But that is about it. Pioneer is hopelessly dull, If Only is more sickly disco jazz and I Guess It’s Gonna Rain Today is Beatles without the melody. Words & Music is an irritating confused child-like metaphor (the subject of Lerche’s affections is ‘a poem’ one minute and ‘a sad little tune’ the next) and the plodding piano and percussion quickly turn into show-tune camp. And the tribute to George Lazenby is more of a damning critique than a heart-warming lament. Only the smooth orchestral closer Goodnight is anything to write home about thanks to great vocals.
What makes criticising Heart Beat Radio so hard is that Sondre Lerche is so damn likeable. From his charm, to his approach, to his lyrical wonderment, and his romantic wide-eyed and often double-edged observations, he is an accomplished musician. But too often he strays into mediocrity, in spite of a constant sense of fun and optimism. The highlights are made to sound better due to dross around them. Clearly Lerche has an ear for talent and has gathered an orchestra of musicians to help out but would benefit from a more consistent sound in the form of a regular backing band. Alternatively he needs to tone down the ambition and get back to writing better and more straight-forward songs.
-- CS (for Altsounds)