His brother turned to jazz, his sister to classical music - Gabriel Birnbaum’s musical destiny lay along a different path. His solo project Boy Without God delivers guitar-led, moody rock compositions with a Bon Iver soul, heavy on the fusion sauce. But the path from there to here was a long and winding road. Formally trained as a tenor saxophonist, the jazz instinct died hard (if it died at all). In fact the Boston native has a few highbrow musical adventures under his belt, including stints gigging around the boroughs of New York with the likes of avant-garde, future jazz impresarios Andrew D’Angelo and Jim Black. Birnbaum kept that spirit of experimentation going with the short-lived, but well-regarded Boston Jazz Composers Collective, a tight-knit ensemble of players and composers bent on securing a place for jazz in the new century.
The first major sign that Birnbaum was inching his way towards rock fame with his band Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a melding of jazz and noise rock. Noise rock has always held a strange fascination and allure for jazz and classical types alike, stuffed full of Apollonian rules and modal regulations by day, looking for a little anarchic Dionysian release by night. And you don’t need to hold to the Glenn Branca-line that “jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art” to appreciate what the sonic fundaments of rock n roll might have to offer in a jazz hybrid. Not so much that the musical vocabulary of rock has outpaced jazz in terms of relevance; rather that rock in the second half of the 20th century assumed the mantle that jazz had carried so brilliantly in the first half: a total commitment to the live experience in all its spontaneity and confusion. Jazz was born in the hurly burly of speakeasy clubs. Jazz was music to get high to. Jazz was a threat to the Establishment. And white America fought back, either by throwing Clorox-clean, teenybopper puppets at the art form to coopt the music, or by banning it altogether. Jazz was dangerous.
These days you only need about five minutes in a jazz club these to see how dusty the entire experience has become, with middle-aged couples tapping their fingers quietly at tables while working their way through two-drink minimums. Rock n roll at mid-century was an exciting way out- the next big thing- but has largely died the same death. Listen to the radio and you’ll hear bands that sound like bands that sound like bands, an eternal recurrence of suck. White Stripes is Leadbelly twenty-times removed. No wonder musicians turned to noise at the turn of the new millennium. If every pattern has been copped, the only path to genuine novelty lies off the music page in the ethereal realm of overblown honks and sticky feedback. Noise is the ultimate cover for new music, a secret laboratory nurturing precious seedlings in a dead landscape. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, described as “equal parts Albert Ayler and Deerhoof” , was Birnbaum’s entrée into a post-genre musical dimension.
The first formal gig of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was a Boston Jazz Composers Collective showcase. Thereafter the band started playing their own gigs and touring. A combination of guitar feedback, drum bashing and good-old-fashioned yelling at the audience (“STOP FUCKING EVERYTHING UP!” was the repeated tagline, a real crowd pleaser) allowed Birnbaum to stretch his wings without dipping into the Byzantine modal morass of jazz composition. Good live rock and roll screeching captures the live spontaneity jazz used to have before it became hyper-academicized in the latter half of the 20th century.
His time in Boston has also included playing with local luminaries Drug Rug as well as Eli Reed and the True Loves, showcasing his saxophone skills with both ensembles. Like good drummers, good brass specialists are always at a premium in a guitar-dominated music scene; so Birnbaum has never lacked for gigs, but has been increasingly concentrating on his personal project Boy Without God in recent years. Part of that renewed focus has come about due to his not-as-of-yet-patented “one minute a day” recording method. Birnbaum describes it best: “The minute-a-day thing is a creative exercise I’ve done on and off since I came up with it in 2007. It helps me get over my internal editor, who is a nasty sonofabitch. Basically, every day I sit down to make one complete minute of recorded music (all the parts and all the mixing, so I don’t really have to touch it afterwards) and try to connect it to the previous day’s minute, creating a long, winding piece of music of indefinite length that functions sort of like an abstract, musical diary. I really like writing this way because it gratifies the impatient part of me and gives me something tangible at the end of every day.” Artists use all sorts of rituals to get them in the mood, and the minute-a-day method has been Birnbaum’s own personal recipe.
You can hear the fruits of that labor on Boy Without God’s genre-smashing full-length release Your Body Is Your Soul as well as Walking On Water Wasn’t Built in a Day, the EP from which both the A and B side of the Ampeater 7” have been pulled. In Walking On Water… drums, guitars, ukulele, saxophone, plus “found sounds” have been tied together into a neat little 4-track package showcasing Birnbaum’s affection for classic pop forms. Attentive listeners will recognize the ba ba-bum chick drum line from the Greasers-era hit “Leader of the Pack” in our A-side “City Kids.” A raw slow burn of feedback ushers the ear into a sweet, meditative number that mixes equal parts Beach Boys and Justin Vernon, sweet memories of summer love. When the horns kick in, the song warms up and strikes a vintage tone that you rarely hear these days, a lush spectrum of orchestral pop on an intimate scale. As “City Kids” segues directly into the B-side “Call a Yellow Taxi,” you can even hear the crunch of an apple. Found sounds in the form of percussive fruit. Boy Without God brings the sound (and the taste) of the unexpected, but warmly welcomed. Birnbaum seems to be savoring the familiarity of more well-behaved soundscapes, in lieu of the noisescapes or mad skronk of his past. Perhaps the audience stopped fucking everything up?
Look for sporadic shows here and there, including a Northside Music Fest showcase, as Boy Without God puts the finishing touches on a new album, which Birnbaum describes as, “by FAR the thing I’ve done that I’m most proud of, and it’s the first BWG album where I really got to use all my composing/arranging chops in writing out complex string and horn parts and then bringing in friends to play them, usually better than I ever imagined they could be played. I cannot say enough how amazing the performances are that other people (including Danny Mekonnen and Will Graefe from the ALB) gave on this album. They all just killed it dead. Uh, in the good way.” Come watch Boy Without God kill it (in a good way) this Sunday at Bar Matchless.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem105/01 City Kids.mp3
Call a Yellow Taxi
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem105/02 Call a Yellow Taxi.mp3