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Wilder Maker - Zion Music Album Reviews

Gabriel Birnbaum’s urban Americana project intersperses grit and gloom with alluring glimpses of deliverance in the first installment of a planned musical novel on young adult life in Brooklyn.

If New York City is your trap, Wilder Maker will not be your escape hatch. The seven songs that make up Zion—the amorphous urban Americana project’s first album since the series of 2015 EPs that helped the band establish a more cohesive identity—form the first installment of a planned musical novel concerning the exigencies and ecstasies of young adult life in Brooklyn. Artists living in squalor long to find their big break before the city’s low-wage jobs and low-stakes friendships break them. Excitable pals tolerate inconveniences like late movers and rickety stairwells when they find a new apartment, all in the eternal search for adventures and lovers. A tardy cocaine dealer gives the narrator time to ask himself a verboten question: What if this incessant toil isn’t fucking worth it?

In the microcosm built by founder and lyricist Gabriel Birnbaum, there is no definitive answer, only a peculiar mix of gloom and alluring glimpses of deliverance. The lows are debilitating and quotidian, the sort of stuff that will drive you back to the tallgrass prairie unless your ego develops callouses. During “Drunk Driver,” someone gets their heart publicly shattered amid an uncaring crowd, performing a symphony with “the sound of High Lifes popping”; the only possible exit is more booze elsewhere. “Impossible Summer” paints the city as a showcase for other people’s opulence, constantly reminding you of the things brewing coffee and mixing drinks may never buy you. At the other extreme, perfect summer weather and the pleasantness of a crowd at a New York music festival feel like salvation in “Women Dancing Immortal,” a song that springs into a refrain so ebullient it’s hard not to feel lighter.

This admixture even follows the kids out of town for “Multiplied,” in which they’re stranded at a venue with no place to sleep after playing for six people. When a stranger rescues them, they snuggle in sleeping bags, watching late-night television. Birnbaum and the great singer-songwriter Katie von Schleicher recount this experience in dovetailing harmony, their easy chemistry and lyrical specificity confirming that they recount this (and all these songs, really) from experience, not imagination. This push and pull—between harsh reality and resilient hope, between skipping town and staying put—recalls Craig Finn during the early days of the Hold Steady, mapping the experiences of a wild youth with the perspective of a survivor.

The Hold Steady, however, arrived with an asset Wilder Maker have yet to develop: a consistent and compelling sound that affords their tales the room and resources to flourish. A crisp and clever band, Wilder Maker do offer razor-sharp webs of guitar and a rhythm section that leans back and rushes ahead with refreshing narrative sensitivity. And their hooks are mighty. But the songs themselves pinball among influences that seem vetted for their cultural cachet, shaping a patchwork that resembles the cool corner of a Facebook group where people share pictures of their record collection. The highlife of Ghana, the harmonies of Dirty Projectors, the zigs and zags of St. Vincent, the textural tension of Radiohead, the saxophone of the E Street Band but with the acidic edge of Peter Brötzmann: They all drift through Zion, one by one.

It’s not simply the traces of these artists that pose a problem; entire elements of recognizable songs appear here, as though Zion were some instrumental mixtape with Birnbaum’s lyrics added later. “Gonna Get My Money” pivots from the swaggering belligerence of Neil Young’s“Revolution Blues” to the poignant lift of Bobby Charles’ “Small Town Talk” without a wink. When it happens, I get lost within the song, distracted by thoughts of those masterpieces instead. The same holds for “Drunk Driver,” a tense torch song about the tragedy of casual heartbreak. Von Schleicher is hypnotic here—that is, until the music morphs into a clear riff on the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs,” with kick drum and snare strutting behind a coruscant drone.

Maybe these borrowed bits are meant as signifiers, hypertext links to songs that tell us more about Wilder Maker’s sojourn through the city. But it often feels like they’re struggling to make sounds worthy of these subjects, to write music as interesting as the times Birnbaum documents. That sensation only grows on the frequent occasions when he over-sings his own lines. It’s as if, caught up in New York’s rush of ambitions, he’s not yet comfortable letting Wilder Maker’s music stand on its own—a conundrum that someone in this map of Brooklyn is bound to face along the way.

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