Determined to sing and be heard, Wilder Maker’s Gabriel Birnbaum unloosed last year’s Year Of Endless Light as his own barbaric yawp over the rooftops of an indifferent world, the album a fulmination of raw talent and professional struggle expressed in swerving jags of jazz-blazed, high-rise folk. Across seven-, eight- and 12-minute odes to creative freedom, Birnbaum defied the collective meh, reveling in ecstatic jubilees of communal music-making and losing his shit in volatile stops of solitary rage. For all his exertions, few listened and few cared.
Well-played, cold world, well-played.
Being an artist, though, means you can never quit you can only be beat, so when the universe smirked “your move, Birnbaum,” the songwriter/multi-instrumentalist followed the path of countless artists before him. He played his songs. He solidified his band. And he hunkered down with his typewriter (yes, typewriter) and kept writing.
If character is revealed by adversity, “Hope Springs”—the upbeat lead track from Wilder Maker’s new EP Everyday Crimes Against Objects Of Desire—testifies to a mind equally reflective and resolute. Bouncing against the repeating echoes of the word “die” (cheekily sampled from Year Of Endless Light), Birnbaum entwines his shape-shifting voice with the crystalline harmonies of singer/keyboardist Katie Von Schleicher, the pair singing “hope springs with your back against the wall/ in the dog days of our minds…did you get back to your own divinity?” Showing rather than telling, 90 seconds into the song Birnbaum proves his point by pulling a full stop on the pleasing Peace Train groove, hard-plucking an acoustic solo that sounds more like the choreographed steps of a life-affirming jig, letting the world know he’s taken its best shots and, hahaha, he’s still here shaking his ass.
On Everyday Crimes, Birnbaum isn’t dancing alone. In a give-and-take tradition spanning from Gram and Emmylou to Whiskeytown and The Mendoza Line, Von Schleicher emerges as a potent creative foil, always on the verge of stealing the show. Within the Low-paced depths of “White Knuckled On The Wheel,” as a throat-punched Birnbaum ruminates on wrecked desire, Von Schleicher’s voice lingers in and out of his desolation, a fleeting scrim that brushes tantalizingly close but remains forever beyond reach.
Though Year Of Endless Light’s accents of brass and piano are absent from Everyday Crimes, the rhythmic and harmonic complexity of “Zion” captures the band’s restless jazz roots. Over a spiraling guitar figure, prodded by handclaps and swinging drums, Von Schleicher assumes the lead until Birnbaum joins in with a concurrent vocal line, their conflicting lyrics and vocal tones overlapping and merging briefly before shifting back out of phase, point and counterpoint compelling different views of the same object. Love—undone. “Zion” climaxes at a despairing and cornered break where Birnbaum reels out slant rhymes and cadenced repetitions in a poetics of beauty and terror; with Everyday Crimes the first of a planned trio of EPs, Birnbaum has suggested that the entire series can be looked at as alternating views of a singularly painful breakup.
This sequence of EPs serves both as a means of dividing diverse recording styles and also as a pragmatic hedge against the all-in tyranny of release-date hype, where the window of opportunity closes as fast as it opens. Last winter I interviewed Birnbaum (subsequent to which we’ve carried on a sporadic e-mail correspondence), and he took the long view of his career, saying “You put in this enormous amount of work and that work doesn’t directly create success, but success cannot happen without the work. When it does happen, it will be sudden and surprising…” Ultimately, Year Of Endless Light was cited by Wondering Sound’s Jayson Greene as one of 2013’s notable overlooked albums, and Wilder Maker’s touring and recording lineup now includes members of breakthrough bands ranging from Bear In Heaven to Baroness. Step by step, it’s a slow build. Your move, world.