For a guy whose credits include saxophone in an Ethiopian pop ensemble (Debo Band) and vocal and guitar duties in an acclaimed indie rock band (Wilder Maker), Gabriel Birnbaum can pretty much do whatever he wants on a solo album. His solo debut, Not Alone, may not offer up the kind of exotic stylings of the brass-infused Debo Band. Rather, it seems like something of a continuation of his work with Wilder Maker. There’s an indie rock flavor to this deeply enjoyable album, but it tends to veer more toward introspection – not an uncommon trait for a solo release.
Accompanying Birnbaum (who handles vocals, guitar, piano, and saxophone) are Adam Brisbin and Will Graefe on guitars and bass as well as Jason Nazary on drums, percussion, and synths. Going into the recording process with very little preparation apart from Birnbaum’s songs, the album was tracked in a couple of days with just a few overdubs. As a result, Not Alone has a loose feel that recalls the musically rich texture of classic Neil Young or mid-1970s Dylan albums. Birnbaum’s deep, soulful drawl invites comparisons to Craig Finn and Joe Henry, a burnished instrument that serves the songs extremely well.
But this isn’t some lazy exercise in retro-worship; there’s a nod to more contemporary artists like Wilco (whose sound is all over this album) and Bon Iver, as the rambling indie rock of the former meshes with the introspection of the latter. “I like to see your name appear on my phone,” Birnbaum sings on the opening title track. “One of the many incarnations by which you are known.” The song rolls along at a leisurely tempo, with tremolo-drenched guitar riffs and chords crashing down during the song’s random swells.
“Stack the Miles” is another example of various influences coming together to form a unique arrangement. Birnbaum’s gentle vocal delivery combines with urgent, minor-key acoustic guitar strums that sound like Elliott Smith crashing the sessions for A Ghost Is Born. The song seems haunting in an almost overly private way as if the listener is spying on a session that isn’t meant to be shared. But the quiet atmosphere also turns surprisingly inviting, as on the gentle country-folk of “Blue Kentucky Mile”. Birnbaum’s ability to combine the tender, pleasant arrangement with almost novelistic lyrics is a thing to savor. “The loops in the L’s in the letter you wrote,” he sings, “Your voice on the phone it hangs like a horizon does / Stay up to catch the sun.”
But these pockets of Americana are tempered with catchy power-pop touches as well, and on “Comeback Song”, the twangy guitars make room for plenty of swooping, over-the-top licks that fit nicely between the verses. At the same time, Birnbaum appears to be enamored of classic acoustic folk that dominated the 1970s – the quiet, moving “I Got Friends” is a small wonder, with the arrangement holding back just enough to remain both mysterious and beguiling. “You can always find the devil in the middle of the night,” Birnbaum sings, giving the song a somewhat foreboding edge.
With all its twists and turns, however, Not Alone is essentially a rock and roll record. “Mistakes” ambles along with its vivid imagery in front of bluesy guitars. “Fingers on the presidents / The money came the money went / I spent it all on things no one could need.” There are no gimmicks here, no desired adherence to a trend or sub-genre. The album was – according to the press materials – written alone in a variety of dive bars, and that tracks. The songs have a world-weary, slightly buzzed feel, both sentimental but refreshingly authentic. Regardless of the many bands Birnbaum has played, recorded, and toured with, it’s good to know that there’s a solid solo artist in there as well.