Review by John Apice
Aaron Nathans & Michael G. Ronstadt – Shadow of the Cyclone
Philadelphia based guitarist/songwriter Aaron Nathans & Cincinnati cellist/songwriter Michael G. Ronstadt (nephew of Linda), has impressed me since their first 2014 LP.
Shadow of the Cyclone (drops Oct 1 – Independent/Trespass) – is the duo’s 3rd & it’s a little darker. It explores songs about an author who stopped writing, barbell men who gather at the Coney Island boardwalk to conjure the spirit of their mentor (“Strongman”) & an upbeat 12-bar blues ghost story.
While the work challenges & possesses potency musically — the duo shuffles originality made up of cards of eccentric old-time stylistic expressive moments & near-novelty (“Haunted House” & “I Go Low”).
They successfully balance their dealings always with meticulous performances.
Michael’s cello bellows with power but never overwhelms. Serenity Fisher (pianist) offers a spirited female vocal. Aaron goes deep vocally at times & pushes generously on ‘Low’ with an old-fashioned Frankie Laine “Riders in the Sky” drama. Some will like it; others will skip it. Aaron does most of the lead vocals & though he doesn’t possess a distinctive strong assertive vocal he does vocalize effectively. On “My Only Leap,” Michael sings well though the lyric is a bit cliched the music anchors it solidly. Instrumentation is always good.
On Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” the cover is a well-intended attempt — the dual vocal is a misstep. Some voices just don’t suit a song. Neither voice is distinguished enough to keep this afloat. The duo is back on track with the minor-key instrumental “Phantasmagoria.” Though not hummable the cello-drive & splendid acoustic are tasteful.
Vocally, “Just One Minute” is their high-water mark. Far better arranged with expertise & color than the others. Delightful. The electronica-cello ode is done with a wink. Well-written & showcased. Surprisingly, “Sinner’s Bible,” — also sung a bit tongue-in-cheek possesses a more Americana spirit. I’m not crazy with this vocal approach, it may sound cheeky to some, but the lyrics lend themselves to this dark meditation. It has a hard-worded vocal progression — no smooth vowels, no held notes. It plods along but is fueled by good backing vocals & acoustic guitar.
The excellent “Carry a Tune,” has subtle cello/acoustic guitar, it’s an upbeat melody with story-like lyrics that has endurance. Aaron’s vocal is suitable, but a more distinctive vocalist would bring the flavor out more. It needs better intonation, better phrasing & held notes. This is one of their finest. It has commercial sensibility, ballad attractiveness, country & folk overtones.
Despite some wrinkles, the duo never disappoints. Everything is well-disciplined, & engaging. There’s salt & there’s sugar. Room for improvement? Yes. Entertaining? Absolutely.
The band: Michael (cello/vocals/acoustic guitar-12-string guitar-electric guitar /bass/mandolin/ accordion/piano/organ/Native American flute/effects/Cajon/percussion).
Aaron (vocals/acoustic guitar-electric guitar/sound effects/percussion/glockenspiel/piano).
With guests: Stan Ginn (drums/Cajon/tap shoes/snare), Phil Henry (backing vocals/banjo/glockenspiel/ Rhodes, wire brushes), & Ciara Grace (backing vocals).
The 46-minute CD produced by the duo with Gregory Hugh Brady (shaker). Available at Amazon, Bandcamp & http://nathansandronstadt.com/