Album Review: Gabriel Birnbaum – Not Alone

Gabriel Birnbaum, the talented saxophonist, composer and arranger, has described his new album, Not Alone, as a ‘great autumn record.’ He isn’t wrong. It has a comforting quality to it, and it isn’t full of tropical summer pop earworms either. Although you could describe Not Alone as laidback, it is, to Birnbaum, a piece of work that ‘marks a major transition in my life’ and is a ‘part of myself that you don’t often see’, suggesting that the music is going to be revealing in a way that it hasn’t been before. Listening to the first three tracks, the album begins to fulfil the definition of ‘a simple record in many ways’ that Birnbaum has given it. Not that simplicity equates to reductive; the music is just uncomplicated, and the album is both enjoyable and thought-provoking.

The opening titular track, ‘Not Alone’, with its folky-blues guitar, is a gentle introduction to this introspective album. The lyrics are sparse and repetitive, and vocally Birnbaum is channelling Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens. With its relaxing instrumental section, this song is the ideal introduction to the rest of the album. The opening bars of track two, ‘Stack the Miles’, establish a strong sense of movement with the strumming guitars setting the pace. Lyrically, there is an expectation of hope and promise (‘I stack the miles/I hope it’s enough … I hope it adds up’) and Birnbaum’s deeper vocal register is reminiscent of Johnny Cash here, which fits the pensive mood perfectly. Track 3, ‘Mistakes’, is much brighter and catchier with a downtown New York feel to it; with its jazzy honky-tonk piano and quirkier personality, it is certainly more colourful than the first two tracks.

‘I Got Friends’ is a standout track on the album, and has a calm, ethereal opening, drawing you in. It’s a mournful ballad with strong Johnny Cash vibes lyrically and vocally. The guitar is simple but constantly supporting, allowing Birnbaum’s voice to remain the focus. Lyrics such as ‘You can always find the Devil in the middle of the night’ allow the song to blur the line between dreamy and haunting, bemusing you to listen on. The following four tracks move between country, blues and rock letting Birnbaum’s ability to blend multiple genres come to the fore. The last track, ‘Oh Jesus’, is the album’s unexpected conclusion, tying in with Birnbaum’s comments about revealing a new side to himself. It is simple in terms of instrumentation with an accompanying piano added halfway through. Birnbaum stretches his voice, using his falsetto at certain points also, coming together to create a slow eerie confessional ballad that eases you out of the album.

With this album, Birnbaum has managed to cover a range of colours from the musical mood board. Each track is solid enough to stand alone and still work as a linear album. There is nothing hectic or melodramatic about the album’s structure and it feels less like Birnbaum is trying to exaggerate this new side he wishes to show us, but, instead, he is just telling a story that you certainly want to listen to. This, in essence, is the epitome of success for any songwriter: to have your perspective heard and understood by your listeners. By drawing on his influences, in tandem with his own musicianship, Gabriel Birnbaum has crafted an album that really does deserve to do well.

Sam Meleady

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