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Gabriel Birnbaum reads my past back to me

Last updated on July 2, 2020

A significant reason I stopped covering folk-pop was my inability to take any more breakup songs. After a decade of folk-pop mope and almost a decade of pop-punk / emo in the same vein before that, I was full up. (the Good Graces’ devastating Set Your Sights is pretty much all I need at this point, although sharp-eyed readers will note that I just recently covered Summerooms’ breakup album–some things can’t be avoided.) Looking into instrumental music means that I am opening myself into a vast new room of tropes. I’m sure I’ll get sick of the tropes of instrumental music at some point, but there’s always new genres to discover when that happens.

I mention all this because I’ve never heard an album quite like Gabriel Birnbaum‘s NightwaterIt is the opposite of a breakup album: instead of being heavily invested in personal grief, reckoning, and catharsis, Nightwater is almost aggressively focused on items and their surroundings. The titles here are their own art, setting aside the music for a moment; it’s as if William Carlos Williams wrote a track listing. “Half an Orange Crush on a Blue Recycling Bin,” “Ashtray, I <3 NY,” “Yellow Sign, Discount Liquor, Seen Through the Window,” and “Sun Bleached Bbq Grill, Red to Pink” are all so lusciously specific in their iconography and representative details that I barely have to describe the music to you. All four of those songs sound exactly like those situations. I don’t know if Birnbaum wrote the titles and then set out to evoke those images or is simply a savant at understanding which slices of low-key everyplace ephemera his instrumental compositions sound like. Either way, I heard this record, saw those titles, and fell in love with it. I fell in love with it so hard that I wanted to make something like it. That’s my highest honor.

Okay, but what does “Half an Orange Crush on a Blue Recycling Bin” sound like, if you’ve never had the experience of seeing that exact thing? Well, there’s a vintage keyboard sound that lazily and contentedly creeps its way along, a bass that plods along with it, and a Casio-style backbeat. The lead melody sounds like it came out of a toy instrument somewhere. The whole thing is the best sort of humid languor–the nowhere-to-be, nothing-to-do sort of space that is so constricting to teens but so nostalgic and desirable to adults who are forgetting how much it sucked the first time around. I have that nostalgia when I hear this track, and affirm that I didn’t really like this sort of feeling when I was a teenager–that’s the level of evocativeness that Birnbaum has conjured up from this track. Also there’s a saxophone or something, of course there is, there always was.

“Three Cacti: Felt, Rubber, Neon” is an unimpeachable ode to kitschy Arizona stuff (yo! I live here now! I know this feeling!). “Candle in Shower, Fear Be Gone” takes the swirling guitars of Damien Jurado’s untethered “Saturday” and gives them a home in my memory of saint candles in odd places. “Kitchen Wall, a Cold Cup of Cosmos” relies on an almost soulful keys-and-bass interplay to turn a ditty with Casio into a reverie on early mornings and late night conversations, sitting in the kitchen, pondering the universe. “Stack of Unread Books Next to the Bed” (yes, I feel very seen) is an intimate, affectionate piece that breaks everything down to its most minimal elements–the percussion is a distant click of spoons, the guitar is minimal, the synths are fragmentary, and the whole thing is homey and lived-in. Your mileage may vary, but tracks like this could just live in the background of my life, and it would be an appropriate estimation of my way of life.

Birnbaum’s four-track approach here does the trick that the best art does: it turns its limitations into its strengths. (See Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch for the highest form of this position.) Birnbaum revels in the space that the limited number of instruments allows; tracks like “Old Family Chair, Claimed by Cat” use little details like amplifier buzz as part of the way the songs develop and feel. That track, by the way, is a beautiful, lightly herky-jerky offering that is basically the sound of your cat’s leg moving in its sleep.

I could go on for a while. This album is 45 minutes of minimalist reveries that are laser-focused to my sonic and topical concerns. If you like minimalist music but can’t stand cold formality, if you like composition but have an indie rock soul instead of a orchestral soul, if you have an emotional response to the title “Two Small Chipped Mugs, Turquoise,” then this record is for you. Highly recommended.