Album Review

Aaron Nathans & Michael G. Ronstadt – Crooked Fiddle

Linda Ronstadt - Error

With the opening strains of a cello and the dual vocals of Aaron Nathans and Michael G. Ronstadt, the adapted poem – "I Stood Upon a Hill” by obscure poet Clarence Dan Blachly – unfolds as a brilliant lyric.

Discovered in a used bookstore a 1939 chapbook, it contained words that warranted music and deserved it. With the permission of the Blachly estate, Narans and Ronstadt molded the words into an Irish-type folk song. Their Lowen and Navarro-type vocals stitched together into a uniform voice and a perfect introduction to the music of Aaron Nathans and Michael G. Ronstadt.

This is not dynamic music in the complicated arrangements of progressive bands, alternative rock or contemporary music. It’s not about showboating and dramatics. It’s a difference between a comfortable white sheet of linen and cashmere. Nathans and Ronstadt are cashmere. Music you would want to get closer to and not be overwhelmed by.

The well-thought-out approaches here are smooth with poignant tales filled with sincerity. Perfect for late night glasses of wine. “Cars Don’t Keep” is not a country rollick song about automobiles – instead, it’s about saying goodbye to a vehicle that had been reliable the way a good friend is. This is the songwriting creativity that I admire.  

While the duo are not old men, the mystique of the barber’s chair is obviously strong in their memories. Decades ago, as perhaps still today, old codgers sat in the big wind-up seat, with the leather strap for a straight-edge shave and knew it was a place where the barber was the equal to a therapist.

“Old Joe’s Chair,” revisits the comfort of that relationship. Maybe it’s the ambience of the walls with the ornate paintings. Or, the old radio station music that permeated the soft paint peeling walls of the parlor where other men sat and waited with their faces buried in National Geographic magazines and political gossip. The smell of hair tonic and powder. The breath of Old Joe on your neck as he clips away expertly with scissors and comb, then dabs that talc all over your neck so good you could fall asleep in the chair. He’s the man you confided in – even more so than a bartender. A bartender’s advice was usually  what you wanted to hear. A barber … he was closer to a priest. You could confide in him; he offered a philosophy. This is what makes a great folk song -- episodes that made up something about life that left you with a memory.  

“Crooked Fiddle” is an amazing track. The lyrics sung with such ingenious speed it reminds me of the jazz tune The Monkees – yeah you heard me right – did so brilliantly in the '60s when Mickey Dolez fired out his vocals as fast as Lucas McCain of The Rifleman fired his modified Winchester on “Goin’ Down.” That was jazz-infused frenetic and this new one by this duo – is beautifully frantic as well. In the hands of Nathans and Ronstadt it’s layered with such cool overlapping lyrics – yet, the music is spare and never intrudes. This tune is already on replay.

While some songs are sung with deep serious vocals and they’re clear enough to understand every word the tunes may be too adult and polished for some. Is that a problem? Not at all. The duo balances the songs that are well-intentioned even in their impeccable starchy clean presentation. But this is not always the case. So don’t get put off.

After hearing Bob Dylan perform his classic “All Along the Watchtower,” on John Wesley Harding – and then the endless plays of Jimi Hendrix who elevated it to another stratosphere, the ability to interpret that very same song with cellos shows the diversity that Aaron and Michael can conjure on an age-old song. This takes skill and they pull it off.  

“Tongue Stuck in Ice,” has an infectious acoustic guitar melody and is edgy. This approach reminds me of the surreal / folk driven style Dave Cousins’ utilized with his band The Strawbs – especially on their classic album “Grave New World.” This is a winner. A real favorite.

You may have guessed by now that Michael G. Ronstadt is related to another Ronstadt – but, make no mistake, this fellow is his own man. Nephew of legendary female rocker Linda Ronstadt, Michael is the son of musician Michael J. Ronstadt – Linda’s younger brother. The acorn doesn’t fall too far from the tree does it? He is a real contender and, along with Nathan, not afraid to push the envelope. 

While the track “Thirteen” has a wonderful, memorable melody, the song “Doing the Best I Can,” is the real ear candy. Many unfamiliar with the progression of folk music through the decades would be easily re-educated if they patiently listen to how the cello – used as a lead instrument on many of these songs – is hauntingly good and does in fact render these little stories into a revitalized modern-day folk showcase that is catchy. There is nothing here that is stale, and nothing that would be stale 20-years from now.

The CD package is like the music – nothing flashy, just confident in what it displays, simple and attractive. It exudes what you will find in the production. Nothing is over-stated, and the songs are well paced. I am impressed with the “sound” these men pull out of their instruments without the addition of so many in your face instruments. They simply don’t need the added blare. Their talent and fine arrangements are what’s attractive and the project was produced and engineered by Michael himself.

“Drop of a Hat" is the last track – written by Aaron and the late Dale Kidd in 2004 – and appearing for the first time on this album. It confirms that they would have been a viable songwriting team. The duet is emotional and the instrumentation is chillingly good, as well as, tear inspiring.

Like many Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits songs, these tunes can linger in your ears and follow you into bed where you will be looking up at the ceiling with your eyes closed in the dark and the melodies still partying into your sleep.

There is nothing here that is of a high-brow lecture, nothing heavily political or offensive. It’s what makes for great songwriting and a few minutes of content listening that just may chase your stress away. And the good thing is, you can take it generously and you won’t overdose on it.

Aaron Nathans website:  http://www.aaronnathans.com/
Michael G. Ronstadt website:  http://michaelronstadt.com/
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/nathansronstadt
Sample Tracks:  http://www.rdio.com/artist/Aaron_Nathans__Michael_G._Ronstadt/album/Crooked_Fiddle/

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.

John Apice / No Depression / December 2014
Aaron Nathans - Photo from the Aaron Nathans website | Michael G. Ronstadt - Photo: Karl McWherter