Noah Gundersen’s first full-length album opens with “Poor Man’s Son,” a nearly a cappella tune featuring the Seattle singer-songwriter harmonizing with his sister Abby. He strums a few times on his acoustic guitar, but that’s mainly to let you know it’s still there. Mostly the song is about these two siblings singing together and the quiet that creeps in around their syllables. Without fanfare, “Poor Man’s Son” morphs into “Down to the River to Pray,” a transition so fluid that it takes a while to place the tune or remember that Gundersen didn’t actually write those lines.
That rousing hymn demonstrates the extent to which Gundersen draws inspiration from old-time folk and gospel (and suggests he has a well-played copy of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack). Specifically he is fascinated by the intense fervor of belief, if not the exciting rhythms of its expression. There’s a song on Ledges about quoting the prophet Isaiah in a bar, another that takes up the poison vine metaphor of Deuteronomy, another about the Great Liberator. Ledges is not necessarily a contemporary Christian record, but one concerned with the vagaries of faith in a world where disappointment and despair are as common and unshakeable as ever. “The Great Separator comes for me,” Gundersen sings on “Separator,” and it’s hard to tell if he thinks that’s a good thing or a band thing.
To reinforce these spiritual misgivings, Ledges has a roomy, rustic intimacy, as though Gundersen held the sessions at some small-town clapboard church out in some American valley. In fact, Ledges was recorded at Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard’s studio in Seattle. While not known for this type of gospel-tinged Americana, that city has fostered the Gundersen siblings (Abby recently recorded a solo instrumental album, and Elizabeth and Jonathan play in a band called Le Wrens), but especially Noah, who has been gradually building up a large following with his vivid songwriting and impassioned live shows.
Ledges may not match the intensity of his stage performances, but the album does portray Gundersen as an exacting songwriter who never lets self-reckoning curdle into self-regard and as an imaginative producer with a careful hand. For a debut, this sounds surprisingly measured and austere, favoring minimal arrangements. The halting strums of “Cigarettes” sound like smoke dissipating into the air, while Abby’s piano on closer “Time Moves Quickly” sounds like something winding down rather than speeding up.
That sense of quiet reinforces the sense of lonely self-reflection, yet the title track stands out for revealing what Gundersen can do with a full band. By far the album’s most orchestrated song—and even then it’s still pretty spare—“Ledges” features his best and most pop-oriented hook as well as his most revealing set of lyrics about coming to terms with your own mistakes and regrets. “Here I stand on the edge of the ledges I’ve made, looking for a steady hand,” he sings, and his sister’s eloquent fiddle and his brother’s sturdy drumbeat provide all the stability he craves. They play like they’re trying to talk him out of jumping.