Obsessions with albums can lead to interesting places. In the mid-90s, Liz Phair's Exile In Guyville provided a feminine rebuttal to the Rolling Stones' classic Exile On Main Street. A few years ago, Petra Haden made a version of The Who's Sell Out that reimagined Pete Townshend's songs in wonderful a capella arrangements.
Now comes the new album from Sondre Lerche. When I interviewed this young Norwegian a year and a half ago, he told me that he'd become obsessed by Chet Baker Sings--It Could Happen To You. It was one of Chet's late '50s albums, done for the Riverside label. Backed by a quartet, the trumpet-playing singer breezed through a dozen romantic standards by Rodgers & Hart, the Gershwins, and Jerome Kern. He was at his narcotically charming height, with that pure vibratoless tone that made his voice and his horn sound like Siamese twins.
From the opening bars of "Everyone's Rooting For You," it's obvious that Sondre Lerche has gone down by the Riverside. The walking bass, the lively drums, the jazzy piano stabs and then his close-miked voice singing, "Don't be ridiculous, sweet darling..." He sustains the Chet tribute through some wonderful originals, such as "You Sure Look Swell" and "You Knocked Me Off My Feet," along with covers of Elvis Costello ("Human Hands"), Cole Porter ("Night And Day") and Prefab Sprout's Paddy McAloon ("Nightingales").
As a songwriter, Lerche seems especially smitten with McAloon, in that he's not afraid of four-syllable words, diminished chords and complicated melodies. He even does those interesting Prefab-like phrases where he'll break words in two with dramatic pauses.
While paying such loving tribute to an obscure jazz album (and an obscure British songwriter from the '80s) may not grab the same press as tipping a hat to the Stones or the Who, I think this record will deepen Lerche's reputation as a songwriting voice to be reckoned with.
As he sings on the opening track, "Casting your spell so arresting, effortlessly flabbergasting," this record is a bewitching little holiday from the big gestures of the current pop scene. • Bill DeMain
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