Nestled in the sprawling intensity of New York City is a proud tradition of bands, from the hallowed Television to modern wiz Kevin Morby, who use their music as a portal to transcend the urban clamor for calmer pastures. After all, not everyone can be bothered to emulate the never-ending screeches and howls of city life with scuzzy alternate tunings and insistent, throbbing rhythms. Brooklyn supercrew Wilder Maker get their kicks painting rambling living portraits closer to the folk tradition, but the expansiveness of their instrumental ambitions and the clarity of their confessional, at times brooding, lyricism puts them in direct lineage with the giants that came before them. And with Gabriel Birnbaum as songwriter, that tradition is in some dangerously capable hands.
In full acknowledgement of the utter collapse of genre today, the term post-folk comes to mind when describing Wilder Maker’s swirling vortex of airy-textured, extended jam-rock music. However, the four-piece is careful to center vocals and guitar in all of these compositions. One of their greatest strengths is that any of the songs on their latest masterpiece, Zion, would sound phenomenal stripped down to just those elements. Indeed, when they bring the lights all the way down for penultimate track “Multiplied,” with Birnbaum and longtime collaborator Katie Von Schleicher’s voices twirling around delicate finger-picked guitar and minimal shaker-and-bass-drum percussion, their flawless precision is awe-inspiring. They know how to tear your head off with a saxophone solo, like they do on the electrified country of “Gonna Get My Money,” or throw caution to the wind with the hallelujah crescendos on “Women Dancing Immortal,” but this is a band of marvelous and mysterious restraint.
For the most part however, Wilder Maker focus on taking private crises and blowing them up to tremendous proportions. They aren’t about punchy statements, preferring gaping expanses that allow them to spin lyrical yarns packed with vivid imagery. Opener “Closer to God” recounts ditching a scummy landlord for Mexico in no fewer than five verses. The narrative is packed with details like “The new place was a canvas / And we were a brush heavy with paint,” and couches them between the dual guitar harmonies and maximalist, All Things Must Pass thunder of its six-minute runtime.
Von Schleicher’s turns on lead vocals contrast with Birnbaum’s bluesy twang—the soaring highs of “Impossible Summer” spark off the driving instrumentation like lightning. “Like a dreamer who's still dreaming / I just can’t stop fucking up,” she yelps, before being swallowed by a crashing, metallic breakdown, the whole band slowing to a stop as she repeats “I tried so hard” until she disappears into the ether. When she owns the mic again on “Drunk Driver,” she wears a post-traumatic grimace. The story unfolds gently, tumbling through drowned feelings at a bar into another chanted, theatrical climax: howls of “The band plays on” collapse into a single piano note as the drunk driver turns the key. The combination of her stately, stage-perfected prowess and Birnbaum’s rousing but casually introspective warmth makes for an inviting listen at every turn.
As far as folk records go, Zion is as empowering as they come, with two riveting storytellers at the helm armed to the teeth with inventive tunes. Don’t let those thick runtimes stand in your way—Wilder Maker have a knack for generously elevating the smallest of bitter details to grand scales and inviting you in as they process them. Catharsis is better when it’s shared.