REVIEW: GABI - Sympathy

Brad Hess

When you think of pop music, no doubt sugary top-40 tunes come to mind. While GABI, aka Gabrielle Herbst, may classify her work as pop, these are not your tween cousin’s favorite jams (unless your cousin listens to artists like Bjork, Philip Glass, and tUnEyArDs). What Herbst creates instead are delicate, heavily-layered compositions worthy of close examination.

In her debut album, Sympathy, released April 7th, Herbst expresses a dynamic range of emotions. Each song has a cinematic ambience and revolves around a simple mantra that leads the listener into uncharted territory.

Take “Mud,” for instance—an existential ostinato of “Maybe we are mud / Sliding away” loops over orchestral swells until you begin to see the imminent mudslide for yourself. This gives way to a bed of resonant vibraphones and sliding strings as Herbst's many ethereal voices emanate, before ending in a cacophonous crescendo. Similarly, the track “Where” begins with the vocal repetition of the phrase “Where would I go without you?,” then slowly embraces the chaos of the implied destination, an unknown place made somewhat uncomfortable by a stinging dissonance.

GABI at Rough Trade in Brooklyn — photo: Gerard Marcus

GABI at Rough Trade in Brooklyn — photo: Gerard Marcus

As in “Mud” and “Where,” Sympathy continuously showcases songs with layers upon layers of delicate vocals intertwined with orchestral arrangement. Creating the canvas for Herbst's choir of angelic voices are Rick Quantz (viola), Josh Henderson (violin), Matthew O'Koren (percussion), and Aaron Roche (electric guitar / trombone). Yet make no mistake about it—Herbst’s voice is the focal point and driver of the album. "I’m endlessly fascinated with the human voice,” Herbst said in our recent interview. "It’s the closest instrument I could find to some kind of raw truth I was looking for. There are no barriers, there is no hiding. You are completely exposed."

photo: Gerard Marcus

photo: Gerard Marcus

Truly, Herbst’s diverse background shines through in the album. Her training on gamelan and early exposure to experimental classical and world music are exhibited through the polyrhythms and atonality of each song. In “Love Song,” breathy words drip with reverb, a siren song that seems to come from the depths of a cave. Patient, eerie waves and gently rumbling percussion tug at the words to create a tense sonic landscape.

While the album seems like it would be at home in a yoga class or as an ambient workday companion, the overall depth and complexity makes every listen an opportunity for discovery. Both unique and familiar, many tracks are just begging to be sampled (take this club remix of “Fleece”, for example). Quiet but compelling, soft yet menacing, Herbst’s Sympathy makes a strong case that pop can be cerebral, too.