Published Nov 20, 2019The sheer number of spectacular indie folk-rock releases from Brooklyn acts this year — from the likes of Big Thief, Helado Negro and Thelma — has set a high bar for singer-songwriters in the neighbourhood. Emerging from this landscape is Gabriel Birnbaum, saxophonist for Boston-based Ethiopian pop ensemble Debo Band and indie artists like Katie Von Schleicher and Mutual Benefit. After over a decade of lending his talents to others' projects (as well as leading the band Wilder Maker), Birnbaum's solo debut shows a solid songwriter looking back rather than following the trends, who is cautiously sketching out his distinct voice.
Inspired by Neil Young and delivered through soothing, gruff-at-the-edges vocals, Not Alone is predominantly a throwback folk-rock record. "I Got Friends" could almost pass as a mid-'60s Bob Dylan B-side, and "Lose My Head" allows drums, bass, electric and acoustic guitars to play around in a predictably frenetic manner. The fellow Brooklynites Birnbaum assembled for the album flesh out his standard pieces, who add the occasional guitar solo or serve up backup group vocals that — while taking no significant risks — do help shape the album dynamically.
Many of the songs on Not Alone were penned while nursing beers alone in dive bars, and the sense of isolation and longing for community is palpable throughout. Whether on "Mistakes" — the raucous rock song of the record — or "Blue Kentucky Mile," the struggle of loneliness is consistent and deep in Birnbaum's lyrics. As he sings on "I Got Friends," "You can always find the devil in the middle of the night."
The most exciting aspect of Birnbaum's Not Alone is his gift for capturing tender moments in words. On album highlight "Stack the Miles," Birnbaum's lyrics are both enigmatic and inviting — Justin Vernon-esque — as he discusses losing a sense of self whilst in transit: "without even the desire for desire, watch the rain re-arrange its alphabet in infinite, meaningless."
Not Alone is worth hearing for its bursts of poetic beauty, but shows there is plenty of room for growth and experimentation for Birnbaum. Here is an artist with an impressive collection of distinct projects who is just starting to discover his own voice. (Arrowhawk)