After years of gradual evolution, Brooklyn band Wilder Maker came into their own on their 2018 album Zion. The band had already been active for a while by then, but their chemistry congealed around founding member Gabriel Birnbaum's vivid lyrical narratives in a new way on Zion, feeling like interconnected scenes of joy and disillusionment with a backdrop of New York's endless bustling. The album toyed with different styles and guest contributors, but its follow-up, Male Models, takes everything a few steps further. In addition to layered production and moments of orchestral texture amid the band's detailed pop songwriting, Wilder Maker invite a host of guests to sing lead on almost half of Male Models, giving the album the feeling of an intimate but somewhat tense gathering where friends and strangers take turns telling their tales. Where Zion felt like a specific meeting of emotional and urban environments, the rotating cast of Male Models makes it play out like a series of vignettes. Felicia Douglass of Ava Luna and Dirty Projectors sings of loneliness and uncertainty over the paradoxically smooth, soft rock groove of "A Professional," while Mutual Benefit leans into a Bright Eyes-modeled desperation on the chamber folk of "New Anxiety." While well-known for her solo work, Katie Von Schleicher had been a part of Wilder Maker from early in the band's existence, and sings lead on two tracks here, the sad and drifting country-tinged "Silver Car" and the album standout "Against Numbers." The oddly timed riffing of that song recalls certain eras of both Radiohead and Portishead, and eventually opens up into a hooky, fuzz bass-led chorus that recedes into unexpected counterpoint from a woodwinds section. Counting Crows vocalist Adam Duritz even shows up for the bouncy "O Anna." When Birnbaum handles vocal duties, the songs usually go in grittier directions. Album-opener "Letter of Apology" finds him recounting a drunken social disaster at a friend's party, his rough-edged voice taking its place in the lineage of New York storytellers that includes Lou Reed, Jim Carroll, and the Hold Steady's Craig Finn. Upbeat rockers like "All Power Must Remain Hidden" and the blown-out boogie of "Scam Likely" tap into Wilder Maker's powers as a live band, keeping things fun amid all the lyrical intensity. While often densely packed with both ideas and sonics, Male Models manages to keep from becoming too overwrought with concept or despair. Instead of attempting to balance conflicting feelings or sounds, however, Wilder Maker instead brings them all to the party, seats especially disparate entities at the same table, and invites the audience to kick back and watch what unfolds. Over the course of Male Models, that unfolding can take the form of chaos, beauty, listlessness, or enlightenment, depending on the song.
Male Models Review
by Fred Thomas