BY MICHAEL BERICK
The title track’s opening lines serve as a telling signpost to the dark-hued ruminations that course through Ledges’ set of songs: “I’ve got some loose ends/I’ve done some damage/I’ve cut the rope so it frayed/I’ve got a lot of good friends/keeping me distracted/keeping my sanity safe.”
Throughout his first full-length album, the 24-year-old Gundersen addresses personal struggles, unsettled situations, and conflicted emotions of a young man starting to make his way in this world. While he deals with money troubles on the opening track, the stirring, hymn-like “Poor Man’s Son,” love woes are at the heart of most of his songs. Gundersen resists painting relationships in black and white terms. In “Cigarettes,” where he compares an ex-lover to the addictive tobacco, he states that he has quit her (“I don’t carry you in the morning…I carry on fine without you”) but admits that she is still in his system (“You don’t have me anymore/but the truth is/that you do/not the way you used to.”). During “Liberator,” Gunderson repeatedly declares “I am not thinking of you” so frequently that you doubt that he is, and he actually ends the song by confessing that maybe he does want to think of her. Similar mixed feelings also haunt the album’s closing track “Time Moves Quickly,” where he declares: “I don’t like you/I don’t even want to/but I can’t let you go.”
Although his songs hold a degree of melancholic introspective, Gundersen avoids making the album making a dreary, depressing listen. Both “Poor Man’s Son” and “First Defeat” contain glimmers of hope for happiness that are expressed primarily from impassioned singing. He also brightens the rather downcast “Dying Now,” by turning it into a duet with his sister’s lilting vocals. Gundersen’s vocals, in fact, are a particular strength here. He tends with a sing with a nicotine-burnished whisper, which adds to the song’s sense of intimacy. His unhurried delivery injects a feeling of a space to the songs, which serves to keep them from being too heavily.
The album’s spare arrangements (it’s mainly him guitar and/or piano, accompanied occasionally by his siblings on violin, cello and drums) also allow listeners to grab onto some of Gundersen’s laconic yet evocative lyrics. His wounded romanticism is nicely exemplified in the “Liberator” couplet “Now the sun came up too soon today/you left to drive you band back to L.A.,” while he uses “you’ve been spinning me fast/like a tilt-a-wirl” to describe his emotional turmoil in “Dying Now.” Gunderson wonderfully punctuates the sordid bar pickup tale “Isaiah” with the observation: “you don’t seem to care what your boyfriend will think/With the Prophet Isaiah on the crook of your warm/saying I will protect you from all earthly harm.”
Listening to Gundersen’s quiet, acoustic music, you can hear, at times, a bit of the brooding Richard Buckner or Neil Young’s rustic balladry. The piano-based “Time Moves Quickly” conveys an early Tom Waits vibe, while the fiddle-fueled “Boathouse,” one of the disc’s more full-bodied tracks, suggests a laidback Ryan Adams lament. A couple times, Gundersen seemingly references someone else’s song. “Dying Now” contains the line “sail on silver girl,” a phrase found in Simon & Garfunkel’s classic “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” – and Gundersen might have used it to imply the troubled waters he is navigating here. Similarly, the way he intones “better man” in “Ledges” triggers thoughts of the Pearl Jam hit “Better Man” (coincidentally, Ledges was recorded in Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard’s studio).
There’s nothing wrong with a young singer/songwriter revealing some influences, especially when he gets so much right as Gundersen does on Ledges. He displays a wise-beyond-his-years talent for handcrafting the spare but substantial personal songs. Ledges may be a quiet album but it resonates with strong emotions in its own low-key way.
DOWNLOAD: “Poor Man’s Son,” “Boathouse”