Aaron Nathans & Michael G. Ronstadt “Shadow of the Cyclone” (Independent, 2020)

Multi-instrumentalists Aaron Nathans from Philadelphia and Michael G Ronstadt of Cincinnati have combined their talents to produce an album ‘Shadow of the Cyclone’ that deals directly with the challenges of 2020. The title is in itself a metaphor for the situation which has engulfed us and most of the songs deal with life in the pandemic and under the looming cloud of climate change. These themes run through this largely acoustic album built around cello and guitar but featuring many more instruments. In fact, the pair play 33 distinct instruments between them and Ronstadt (the nephew of Linda) holds a master’s degree in cello performance.

The pair’s undoubted musical talents whilst potentially a great asset, do tend to dominate the album, even to the extent that at times you feel it is as much about showing off their prowess as anything else. It is hard not to surmise that the primary function of the album is to showcase the musicians collective talents, rather than to produce a functioning piece of art.

Whereas the roots of folk music are often primitive and the best of modern folk, for this writer, still carries that earthy or primeval element, ‘Shadow of the Cyclone’ is the polar opposite; slick, polished and ultimately sanitised. The songs are frequently over immersed in metaphor with note perfect, flawless vocals serving not so much to clearly enunciate, but often to drain them of any feeling or emotion. An ill-chosen and quite ghastly cover of Sting’s ‘An Englishman in New York’ is the only non-original on the album, all other songs have been written either individually or in collaboration by the pair.

This slick, faultlessly performed and cleverly constructed collection may well find favour with fans of the kind of virtuoso performances often to be witnessed on folk-lite platforms like the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’ but is unlikely to set pulses racing amongst the majority of AUK readers, who I suspect will find it rather anodyne.

Songs reflective of the trials of 2020 suffer from over-sanitisation

About Clint West 325 Articles
From buying my first record aged 10 and attending my first gig at 14, music has been a lifelong obsession. A proud native of Suffolk, I have lived in and around Manchester for the best part of 30 years. My idea of a perfect day would be a new record arriving in the post in the morning, watching Ipswich Town win in the afternoon followed by a gig and a pint with my mates at night,
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Serenity Fisher

To each their own, yeah? The reviewer may not like this album, and that’s okay. But, I have to say, the reasons for disliking this album don’t seem to be about the album or artists themselves, but more a distaste for people who are good at what they do – be it playing instruments, singing, or engineering/mixing. I also like to hear stripped down, gritty recordings… This is not that. So, what?

I witnessed the months long recording process for this album, and slick and sanitized -which I take to mean overproduced- is not how this album was pieced together – they meowed on it for goodness sake. I do agree that it is polished.

“The pair’s undoubted musical talents whilst potentially a great asset, do tend to dominate the album…”

Are you really going to fault people for being good at what they do? Today independent musicians have access to amazing technology. When you hear a modern gritty folk album, that’s a production choice. The engineer has to actively work to make that gritty sound. And in some cases, the gritty vocal is manufactured by the artist to sound like what they think folk or Americana artists are supposed to sound like.

What I like about Nathans and Ronstadt is that they don’t sound like a copy of anyone else. They have two distinct voices, vocally and as writers, that create something unique. Nathans is a story-crafter and Ronstadt is a dreamer; in collaboration, they write songs that pull from their individual strengths and styles, as well as bringing those gifts out in each other- the dreamer in Nathans and the storyteller in Ronstadt.

The artists themselves are two of the most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet. A great deal of love, spur of the moment creativity, reflection, critique, and hard work went into the making of “Shadow of the Cyclone.”

There’s a contingency of those in the folk world, with a very narrow view of what constitutes folk music. It sounds like this critic prefers modern folk music recorded in the vein of archival folk – a front porch, single mic’d, wire recording. I like that sound too.

It’s okay for this reviewer to not like this album. However, I find assumptions made in this review to be far off the mark. The review itself coasts on the surface of those assumptions, without substantiating them in any way. The review seems to be more about the critic’s particular musical tastes/preference for a subset of folk music rather than the substance of the album.