To say that Noah Gundersen's debut full-length album was eagerly awaited in this household would be an understatement. It's been three years since his last EP 'Family' which brought him to the attention of a much wider audience after songs from that release were featured on the FX show 'Sons Of Anarchy'. Indeed, showrunner Kurt Sutter has continued to utilise Gundersen's music by drafting him in for subsequent sessions with house band The Forest Rangers. But Gundersen's new record 'Ledges' puts him firmly in the spotlight, and rightly so.
That's not to say that Gundersen presents anything earth shatteringly new here, however at the age of just twenty-four his songwriting ability rivals that of artists twice his age. Applying all new material rather than cherry picking from his previous EPs, 'Ledges' feels like a cohesive and microscopic exploration of love, loss and everything in between. If there is a criticism to make, it's that the fiery intensity of some of his previous work, such as 'David', is absent here. Instead, Gundersen chooses to frame his understated compositions with an air of quiet melancholy. It's very much a family affair too; sister Abby contributes strings and piano, whilst brother Jonathan provides some sparse and hushed percussion.
In a similar way to The Staves' debut album from 2012, Gundersen elects to open his record with an almost timeless and world weary a cappella performance. The first two minutes of the gospel folk of 'Poor Man's Son' are unaccompanied harmonising. When a guitar is introduced, it's largely incidental until the barnstorming climax. However, on this evidence alone it's clear that 'Ledges' is going to be something special. Gundersen manages to weave in a nod to the popular folk hymn 'Down In The River To Pray', but it doesn't feel forced; it leaves you feeling like he's planting his flag as part of a centuries old tradition.
Elsewhere, Gundersen channels the spirits of artists including Ryan Adams during his alt-country, Whiskeytown days ('Boathouse'); a young Tom Waits slumped at his piano ('Times Moves Slowly'); and, most notably, Ray LaMontagne ('Cigarettes'). Indeed, as he croons, "Honey you're smooth" on the latter, you'd be forgiven for forgetting that this is a debut album. The performance on the track is so subtle and tinged with regret that the accomplishment on show is easy to miss. That's part of the joy of 'Ledges'; while the title track is attention grabbing with a catchy chorus, there's a wealth of heartbreaking sentiment to discover in the album's darker, quieter moments.
I hate to keep returning to Gundersen's age as it could be perceived as lazy journalism, however the truthful sentiment on show throughout 'Ledges' is the key to its success. The fact that you really believe him when he bears his heart on 'Dying Now' is testament that he's developed a voice well beyond his years. There are very few other artists at the age of 24 who could sing the following with such conviction: "You can't build your bridges after you burnt them down. You've done a lot of living but your dying now." 'Ledges' is just the latest proof that Gundersen really is living up to his potential, and while he won't appear on many people's radar anytime soon, we'll keep him as our little secret for now.
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