"Heartbeat Radio" (Rounder)-- 4.5 STARS
With “Heartbeat Radio,” Sondre Lerche delivers an album best characterized by a boyish whim and charm. His music is easy to like but also offers diverse elements of musical sophistication, giving him a universal appeal. Lerche released his first full-length album, “Faces Down,” in his native Norway eight years ago, and since then he has steadily acquired a devoted and loving fan base. He was brought to a wider audience in North America by his work on the “Dan in Real Life” soundtrack, released in 2007. Throughout his career, the singer-songwriter has dabbled in jazz, orchestral sounds, straight-up rock, or wherever his fancy took him. His sixth studio album presents a mature artist that has found and settled comfortably into his own layered pop sound. Now able to draw from experience, Lerche takes the elements that worked best from his previous albums and brings them together; the record blends in remarkably well with the fabric of his career. Even first listeners of Sondre Lerche will find that there’s something immediately recognizable about him; his lyrical simplicity and warm vocals provide an inviting quality. This may draw criticism for lack of innovation, but as in the best pop music, catchy melodies and lush harmonies are always rewarding. What makes Sondre Lerche’s work—including “Heartbeat Radio”— stand out amongst other immediately enjoyable pop music, is its deceptive simplicity. Lerche is very much fascinated by a wide variety of genres, including jazz and rock, and with childlike absorption, incorporates them to his own sound. As a result, even his choice of acoustic guitar as the basis for many of his songs—fairly typical for singer-songwriters—becomes distinctive through his unusually syncopated rhythms and complex, bluesy chords. The title track is the most obvious example of this; its intro is marked by an emphasis on the off-beat. The drums, entering in the second verse, match the syncopation of the acoustic guitar perfectly, as the electric guitar pronounces the off-beats. A piano nonchalantly doodles a jazz riff. On top of all this is a string quartet that serves to double the melody and also support it with fugal harmonies. All of these elements come together and create a balanced song, at once energetic and easy on the ears. The choice of “Heartbeat Radio” as the title track seems an appropriate one. The satisfyingly intricate sound of this first single is one that pervades the album. Even low-key songs like “I Guess It’s Gonna Rain Today” and “Goodnight” incorporate multiple instruments, including a full brass band for the former. Lerche manages to contain the varied instrumentation, giving the song a sense of complexity without overwhelming the ballad. Lerche presents a variety of style in “Heartbeat Radio,” as well. Songs like “Words & Music,” and “Easy to Persuade” rely heavily on distorted electric guitars and less on orchestral pop elements, creating a sharper sound. The relentless drums and rock riffs are reminiscent of his experimentation with rock in his 2007 album, “Phantom Punch.” Like his music, Sondre Lerche’s lyrics are at first familiar, yet distinctly charming. Perhaps because English is not his first language, he approaches clichés and idioms with a delight that turns them for the better. “You can push me away, but I cannot let you go / try as you may, no, I cannot let you go,” sings Lerche. A very typical pop lyric, but here, sung by Lerche, it is filled with a rare sense of optimism, brought out by the playful rhyme. Sondre Lerche is really just an extraordinarily pleasant everyman, whose magic resides in incorporating jazz pianos and orchestral strings in his music while managing to stay completely unassuming and unpretentious. His music may lack originality, but that won’t stop it from being stuck in your head all day. —Staff writer Susie Y. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.