Not unlike David Bazan before him, Seattle-based singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen's mixed feelings about his conservative religious upbringing continue to cast a shadow well into adulthood. Of course, this ambivalence provides a rich basis for lyrical exploration, and the ensuing feelings of internal conflict, soul-searching and resolution all breathe life into Gundersen's music in a way that the listener picks up on right away, regardless of the listener's own background.

Like Bazan, Gundersen favors a direct delivery where the heart never quite moves far from the sleeve. But earnestness alone isn't enough to make one's music compelling. In fact, artists who telegraph their feelings in such point-blank fashion can easily overshoot the mark. But Gundersen has a way of commanding a room with his voice -- and that includes the listener's own bedroom, which is a feat of no small significance in an age of constant distraction.

Gundersen describes his own work as "sad music" and "sad acoustic Americana," which of course oversimplifies what he does. To localize the music on Carry the Ghost to one primary emotional color -- i.e., sad -- gives the mistaken impression that you have to feel blue to relate to what's going on on this album. Not so -- whether Gundersen sings from his own or someone else's perspective, he gives the listeners a vantage point from which to observe the heavier aspects of the human experience, be that sadness, challenge, longing or disillusionment.

These various sensations all come to a head on the song "Halo (Disappear/Reappear)," which starts out as a somber, downtempo (almost dirge-like) guitar ballad before swelling into a slow-motion firework cloud of electric guitar, drums and wailing. The song recalls the archetypical country-rock of the Eagles, but Gundersen and his supporting cast intensify the moment with exceptional finesse and control that transcends rock, country, and folk all at once. And, just as the song builds to a crescendo, they let it drop away as the emotions continue to smolder, the musical equivalent of a short-lived Florida downpour that brings only momentary relief from the humidity it sprang from.