REVIEW: Gabriel Birnbaum’s “Not Alone” is Brooding Sympathetic Vocals


Out on Arrowhawk Records, Gabriel Birnbaum’s Not Alone casts Birnbaum in a new light with his brooding and sympathetic vocals at center stage. Buoyed by a cadre of some of his favorite musicians Not Alone embraces the on the fly process common among genius session masters of yesteryear – think The Wrecking Crew or The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Birnbaum presented his tunes with little coaching to Will Graefe (Okkervil River and Star Rover); Adam Brisbin (Buck Meek and Sam Evian), and Jason Nazary. What results is an easy going yet freewheeling collection of embellished folk tunes augmented with psychedelic leanings reminiscent of the record’s acknowledge inspirations, Jim Sullivan’s UFO and John Phillips John the Wolf King of LA.

Birnbaum’s press release for Not Alone states: “Birnbaum, a working musician since his teens, began as a jazz and avant-garde saxophonist, with stints playing everything from throwback soul music to harsh noise everywhere from the grungiest DIY venues to Lincoln Center and festivals like Bonnaroo and Le Guess Who. At 30, when he began to write the nine songs that make up Not Alone, he had arrived at one of these moments where everything seems to be ending.”

Luckily for us Birnbaum’s ending simultaneously brought forth a new beginning that ushered in a focus on clear plaintive vocals and simple songwriting; Not Alone is the result of this seemingly tectonic shift leaving the sound of destruction and new life in its wake.

Early singles, “Blue Kentucky Mile” and the title track, are simple crush songs, but there is more depth in theses tracks than that description allows. “Not Alone,” the title track and first track on the record, sets the stage for the rest of the collection with a jangled electric guitar, a simple tambourine, slow strutting bass line, and campfire group vocals. The track is highlighted by spurts of energy and angst that erupt in brief interludes before receding again. As if at once a depressing cycle and a place of comfort, the song become meditative in its repetition of a circular approach to arrangement and lyrics. Birnbaum acknowledges this in the lyric, “I been in love so long, I don’t remember the world before this song.” “Mistakes,” another album highlight, embraces a simple piano and gritty guitar driven shuffle filtered through the barroom’s neon glow. Dueling guitar lines and honky tonk leaning piano harken back to early Rolling Stones in a way that makes making “Mistakes” sound inviting.

On the brooding “I Got Friends” Birnbaum sings, “the only time I’m ever alone is when I think of you.” Although hidden behind a mellow bounce, the morose continues on “Blue Kentucky Mile”, “watch the country flooding in I’m gone past route 19 where I always turn, turn the music up and swerve, but no one’s on the road this late I’m all alone I think of you.” In contrast Birnbaum is openly optimistic on “Comeback Song” as he argues that, “Everyone deserves a comeback song, you blink your eyes see you’ve been sleeping for so long, the city saved, the dirt remade, the city saved, the city saved.” Revved-up and rocked-out the band comes back from the brink of subtle accompaniment to erupt into a thunderous cacophony of beautiful noise.

On Not Alone, Gabriel Birnbaum’s musicality and poetry shine through a deceptively complex listen where seemingly simple tunes provide avenues to greater depth upon each listen as Birnbaum’s mundane observations take on a sliver of the sacred. Birnbaum sites Jim Sullivan’s UFO as an influence for this record. After recording UFO, Sullivan disappeared into the desert and never recorded again – some say he was abducted. I for one hope the same fate doesn’t befall Birnbaum and instead of a one off record for cult collectors, Not Alone becomes the foundation for a long and fruitful career.



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