Aural Pleasure

Norwegian Would 

Norwegian pop-rocker Sondre Lerche (say it with me: Sawn-druh Lair-kay) wears his influences like badges of honor. While last year’s charming jazz-pop cocktail Duper Sessions mixed equal parts Chet Baker and Burt Bacharach, his newest, Phantom Punch, is a smoothie blend of XTC, A-Ha, and Elvis Costello, with whom Lerche toured in 2005.

Back in the studio after opening for his musical idol, the singer-songwriter was inspired to plug in, turn up, and rock out with his band, The Faces Down. But in his quest to burst some eardrums (aided by producer Tony Hoffer, who recently helped Belle and Sebastian achieve a more muscular sound), Lerche sacrifices the graceful understatement of his earlier work — with mixed results.

Emboldened by his new license to shred, Lerche turns in his edgiest collection to date. Ska-inflected romper “The Tape” is a catchy mess of distorted guitars, hand claps, and harmonica, and the title track is the highlight of the record: a buzzing disco-punk waltz with a groove  so deep you can go spelunking in it. Lerche doesn’t completely abandon his old ways, though, as acoustic strummers “Tragic Mirror” and “After  All” would fit comfortably in the singer’s back catalog.

However, like Lerche’s previous albums, Phantom is ultimately hit-and-miss. It doesn’t help that even Lerche’s better  songs can be hampered by lyrics that lack coherence or simply make you wince (“Vanity takes your dog for a walk”; “Every girl that I know/ suddenly seems so-so”), though he sometimes achieves an endearing kind of backward poetry.

But at 24, Lerche’s got time to grow — even his worst tunes point to a prodigy distilling his influences to create his own modern pop masterpiece. Phantom Punch may not be that masterpiece, but it’s definitely another step in the right direction.

— Chuck Kerr

French Toast

There are two plausible reasons why Belinda Carlisle has chosen to reinvent herself as a French chanteuse after more than a quarter-centry as a bubbly pop and — with the Go-Gos — new-wave pop singer. Either she’d reached the point where she realized that the upper echelons of the pop charts were no longer available to her, and she might as well record any damn thing that strikes her fancy, or she thought she might reinvigorate her European career by appealing to French speakers (much like Spinal Tap found new life in Japan with “Sex Farm”).    

Whatever her motivation, however, Voila, a collection of French standards from the ’40s to the ’60s, feels like the best kind of indulgence. Covers albums (think David Bowie’s Pin Ups or Rod Stewart’s heinous series of Clive Davis-masterminded cash-ins) rarely tell you anything new about either the songs of the artists, aside from confirming your assumptions about their record collections (or their greed). For dedicated Francophiles, Carlisle’s choices may seem obvious (Serge Gainsbourg: check; Francoise Hardy: check; Edith Piaf: check), and while she tweaks some of the material with unobtrusive electronic beats or Brian Eno’s synth squiggles, she won’t necessarily make anyone hear these classic songs in a new way. But, without a doubt, she will make you think about Belinda Carlisle in a new way.

The florid, Middle Eastern vocal trill that opens “Ma Jeunesse Fout Le Camp” lets you know right away that you’re not about to hear “We Got the Beat.” Alternating between faithful, traditional recreations (“Sous Le Ciel De Paris”) and thorougly modern reconstructions (“Le Vie En Rose”), Carlisle loses herself in her second langague, in a way that she wouldn’t allow herself with English-language pop. She wrenches every last teardrop from the soap-operatic “Avec Le Temps” and manages the right touch of enigmatic sultriness for Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie Et Clyde.”

Even into her mid-forties, Carlisle was able to tap into the youthful ebullience that made Beauty and the Beat  a phenomenon in 1981. But there’s absolutely nothing girlish about Carlisle’s voice on this album, and the transformation is more fascinating than it should be, considering that the Go-Gos are essentially an endearing oldies act. It’s ironic that by dusting off a batch of ancient French pop songs, Carlisle has made herself sound more relevant than at any time in her solo career.  

— Gilbert Garcia  

Small ‘Miracle’ 

This singer-songwriter works in the benighted genre of alt-country, but she has three important arrows in her quiver. First, her voice is a lovely, clear thing that can put over any kind of song, from the torchy “My Twin” to the campfire-folksy “Dear Friend.” But Mandell is not in this to show off her amazing vocal prowess. She starts out “Beautiful” in a tuneless whisper, which she wouldn’t do unless she was more concerned with selling the song’s ambiguity — “Your eyes are the same eyes you had yesterday/ So you know who you once were” — than with her own vanity.

The second weapon is her songwriting, which is by turns intelligent, creepy, and funny. “Girls” is a stalker’s waltz featuring clever — but not too clever — couplets such as “I am the dice you roll in the alley/ I am the pennies that come in handy.” The title track demonstrates a knack for ciphering that would make Erykah Badu doff her turban in awe, while “Make-Out King” pulls off a last-minute Rickie Lee Jones twist: “I’m sure I know better, beware/ the make-out king is starting to care.”

The main advantage Mandell has on Miracle of Five is her band. Anchored by solid drummer Kevin Fitzgerald, this group understands the virtues of space and restraint. If you listen closely, you’ll hear all kinds of strange guitar textures, courtesy of ringer Nels Cline. And the guest on vibes? None other than X drummer D.J. Bonebrake. A woman smart enough to use all of Los Angeles as a weapon deserves respect and admiration.

— Matt Cibula