Brooklyn music jack-of-all-trades Gabriel Birnbaum and his band Wilder Maker are joined by several notable guests on a complex album with a shifting plot.
Multi-instrumentalist songwriter Gabriel Birnbaum has likened ‘Male Models’ to a diverse playlist carefully chosen by him and his band mates Nick Jost and Sean Mullins. For older listeners what might come to mind instead is a movie soundtrack featuring several different artists, which is a specific kind of playlist, yes, but ‘Male Models’ feels like one from the golden age of movie soundtrack albums when people bought highly regarded ones without bothering to see the actual film.
There is a plot here, or at least snippets of internal dialogue and eavesdropped conversations from Overheard In New York. The guest vocalists create a sometimes jarring shifting narrative from various characters’ points of view or, possibly, the changing perspectives of one narrator.
In any case, Birnbaum’s contrite opening lines are an irresistible hook: “Sorry that I told your sister’s boyfriend that he was history’s greatest monster / I got up on a chair and announced to the party that we were all living in a fiction.” I’m curious about how different the song would be if sung by one of the female guest vocalists.
Dry, sneering rocker ‘Oh Anna’ with Counting Crowd’s Adam Duritz has an intriguing subplot. Other guests include vocalist-keyboardist and longtime Birnbaum collaborator Katie Von Schleicher, Felicia Douglass (Dirty Projectors, Ava Luna), Alex Schaaf (Yellow Ostrich), V.V. Lightbody, and Jordan Lee, aka Mutual Benefit.
Musically the album, recorded live over several days, is more unraveled and shaggier than their hyperfocused 2018 debut ‘Zion.’ Fuzzy-guitar songs like ‘Letter Of Apology’ and ‘All Power Must Remain Hidden’ conjure ’70s bands like Thin Lizzy and The J. Geils Band. Birnbaum’s own vocals, which appear on just over half of the songs, sound like an anxious, sweet-natured John Sebastian struggling with depression on Monday morning.
Birnbaum is a troubadour for many weeks of the year with Debo Band and others while working as a publicist by day in New York. The urban Americana landscape he paints is an anxiety-provoking, nerve-shattering, noisy hellhole with an occasional oasis of beauty: a passenger’s poetic description of passing scenery while driving fast at night (‘Silver Car’) or falling in love with a stranger on the commute to work from Flatbush (‘5 Train’). On ‘Scam Likely’ there is a car crash, the sound of a possible murder, ambivalence over whether to call the police, and being woken up by scam calls. Better to stay inside and day drink.
Von Schleicher provides neurotic uneasiness on ‘Against Numbers,’ as does Mutual Benefit on the doom-laden indie-folk ‘New Anxiety.’ Both emulate the troubling voice of the inner critic gibbering away in the back of one’s mind. According to Birnbaum, ‘Against Numbers’ was inspired by the NBA (National Basketball Association) playoffs, which can indeed be an emotional rollercoaster to watch.
The tongue-in-cheek term “male models” refers to role models of positive masculinity rather than versions of Zoolander or Magic Mike. Even with alcohol used as a prop, and believe me, there is a lot of alcohol referenced on the album, there is tension between being open and being ripped apart the second any vulnerability is shown. “If I could be perfect nobody could hurt me / Nobody could touch me / You know how that goes.” Radical honesty, being genuinely known by other people no matter what, is a terrifying adult quest, regardless of gender. Birnbaum sounds up to the challenge.