October 18, 2007

Record Review: Beirut 1/3

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Zach Condon treads a strange line between the familiar and exotic. He is simultaneously the new it-kid of the independent music community, and yet his albums are packaged like field recordings from the distant past, complete with sepia-toned photographs that were probably taken before he was born. His band is named after a city in the Middle East, his first album sounded distinctly Eastern-European and some of the first words on his new record The Flying Club Cup are in French — and probably from an old film. He throws around foreign words like “Orkestar” and “Cliquot,” but sings in English. He is from New Mexico, his second release was cleverly titled Lon Gisland and his new liner notes ask “Where were you when Napoleon died?” What is going on?
Beirut certainly gives the warm impression of a kid in Santa Fe who simply got excited about music in far away places. He picked up a trumpet, went to Europe, and found some music he really liked, and then tried to make it himself. Rather than sounding like a copy-cat, however, his music is infused with naive youthful excitement (in the best way). Academic questions of authenticity are absent from talk about Beirut because he never pretends to be making French, Bulgarian, or Romanian music. Rather he constantly suggests these other genres. Not quite a tourist and not quite an insider, Condon gets the best of both worlds.
This time the excitement is pointed in a specifically French direction. There is less trumpet than before, and more violins. There is still the bombast of the Eastern-European first album, Gulag Orkestar, but its a little less woeful and a little more Edith Piaf. Before Condon explored that distinctly woeful sound of an economically depressed people. Now he’s content to explore the happiness of the French chanson.
And Condon knows this well. The image of a “smile” is all over The Flying Club Cup, and where Gulag Orkestar opened with an anthemic, almost militaristic plea to be heard. The Flying Club Cup’s first track is ironically titled “A Call to Arms,” but is simply some talented blowing into a conch shell. It’s hardly the galvanizing statement we would expect. He gives the lead vocals on “Cliquot” to violinist Owen Pallett, who has a much more wistful and boyish way of singing.
“Un Dernier Verre (pour la route),” the absolute pinnacle of the new record, features a total first for Condon: an extended period of one voice and one instrument. In the past he has relied on the big sound of many overlaid voices, trumpets, ukeleles, and the like to create a constant feeling of bigness, and so it’s particularly arresting when Condon, painfully alone, croons “The world moves slow I find/ I learned of time by your hand.” This trend of emotional vulnerability, once set in motion, takes over the last third of the album. Even though Condon sings “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you smile,” on the second track, “Nantes,” there is something celebratory about the proceedings, with a dancey clicking beat and an electric organ. Sadness, though a more personal kind than on the last record, takes over in the final stages of this album, and it’s so, so beautiful because it is what you would least expect. The title track-closer brings together these two separate feelings. A bombastic drumbeat coupled with a gorgeously melancholic melody makes it feel like, at the last moment, Condon is celebrating his newly found vulnerability. Tres Jolie.