[24 March 2014]
In a 2010 article titled “An Incomplete History of How Noah Gundersen Became The Courage”, Seattle Weekly painted a picture of a young man steeped in religion, family, and the albums of Dylan’s Christian phase breaking out of a rigid home life to infect the world with folksy music.
Under the influence of Counting Crows and Ryan Adams, Gundersen got a backing band called The Courage and went on tour. If you’re familiar with The Courage, then you already know much of what Ledges, Gundersen’s debut solo LP, sounds like. Ledges is more folk-based, but Gundersen’s wizened voice is the same, and the lyrics, mixing family with biblical imagery and the booze-soaked regret of youth, are similar. If you aren’t familiar with The Courage, just look to Gundersen’s influences: if The Courage were Ryan Adams and The Cardinals, Ledges would be Demolition-era Adams with a well-thumbed bible in his pocket.
Given Gundersen’s years of experience and how steeped he is in the folk tradition (see his incredible cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”), it’s no surprise that Ledges is a gem of an Americana record, maybe the strongest debut in the genre that this new year has seen. The record is full of tender tales of love, loss, death, and devotion, all infused with a feeling of familial intimacy that should come as no surprise. Gundersen’s sister Abby sings and plays strings, his brother provides drums, and various friends and relatives sing.
The heart of Ledges, though, lies in Gundersen’s ability with a pen. The personal conflict of title track “Ledges”, the quivering tension of “First Defeat”, and the touching repetition of imagery in “Isaiah” display a songwriter with a gift for balancing drama with the beauty of everyday mundanity. “Buy me a drink, I’ll buy you a drink / You don’t seem to care what your boyfriend would think,” he sings on “Isaiah”, the last four syllables tiptoeing from his mouth like Maria, Adam Duritz’s tragic heroine, “walking on a wire in a circus.” On these tracks and many others, the spaces between the words say as much as the lyrics themselves. It’s the touchstone of a much older artist, a Leonard Cohen or a Chris Smither, not of someone roughly the same age as the Super Nintendo.
Gundersen’s missteps are few. “Poor Man’s Son” begins the album, a slow and striving tune which after a few minutes bleeds into a modified version of “Down to the River to Pray”. It was a one-take recording that sounds like a one-take recording, impressive in its ambition but suffering from its own nature: the production hits a snag when the building howl overwhelms the microphones. Gundersen pinned a lot of hope on “Poor Man’s Son”, telling SPIN, “It is my hope that it allows for space, breathing room, and time for the listener to settle into the record.” But Gundersen’s fears seem misplaced. The album has several strong entry points, and Ledges abounds with contemplative spaces into which a listener can settle.
The other questionable inclusion is “Cigarettes”, a song whose central (read: only) metaphor is that of a woman being as addictive as a cigarette. It begins with “You remind me of cigarettes, the way I hold you in my chest / The way you kiss me with your filter breath” and continues for nearly six minutes, Gundersen latching onto the metaphor with all the subtlety of a pit bull latching onto an arm and shaking for all it’s worth, right down to the Ryan Adams-cribbed falsetto refrain of “Honey, you’re smooth”. Fortunately, Gundersen comes roaring back with the excellent “Liberator” and two more strong tracks to close out an otherwise excellent album.
When I saw Gundersen live for the first time two years ago at Bumbershoot, he was fearless and arresting. He poured himself into the performance, and that sense of dedication pervades Ledges. It’s a record with much broader appeal than its genre tags, and Gundersen comes across as an old veteran throughout. To quote Gundersen himself, from “Poor Man’s Son”, “I was never as young, but I feel twice as old.”