For the past year, Beirut has alternated between touring in support of 2007's much-lauded The Flying Club Cup and writing a wealth of new material. With no sense of a release in mind, bandleader Zach Condon recorded in any style that struck his fancy. Some early discussions about recording material for a film being shot in Mexico morphed into a new idea: What about finding a local band in a small city in Mexico, hiring them to play some new material, and recording the result?It was a sincere challenge every step of the way. Condon had to find the band, which he did through a bandmate's mother who has connections in Oaxaca. To communicate with the performers, he hired a translator, who had to be able to speak English, Spanish, as well as Zapotec, the band members' native language. From there, he flew down to Oaxaca, traveling a half-hour out of town to the tiny weaver village of Teotitlan del Valle, where he met the nineteen members of The Jimenez Band. The ensuing weeks of recording, rewriting, and relating are documented in a series of short films (to be released online as the release date for March of the Zapotec draws near).All well and good, but the six songs found on March of the Zapotec are only a part of what this release has become. Before recording as Beirut, Condon went by Realpeople for his bedroom recordings, and he has revived the name for the second half in this collection, Holland. As opposed to March of the Zapotec, Holland collects a series of songs conceived and completed at home. One song, Venice, appeared on a compilation by The Believer magazine, while My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille was on the Big Change digital-only charity compilation on iTunes.Together, this album-length double release represents the totality of Condon's work over the past year. March of the Zapotec is further testament toward the inventiveness and intimacy he creates as Beirut, a band which started as one person sounding like twelve, and has developed into a particular style and sound. No matter what inspirations jumpstart any one particular song, underlying it all is the realization that Condon is a singular artist creating an original sound. What may appear at first to be two disparate paths are in reality joined by Condon's ability to craft simple melodies that sound both unique and unforgettable. It would be a misconception for Beirut's sound to be considered a dabble in various styles, folk sounds, and music histories, because one could never confuse Condon's music for the original inspiration; all his songs on this release carry more in common with each other than they do their original source of inspiration. And whether he's being inspired by Balkan folk, French chanteuse, Mexican troubadour, '80s synth pop, or '90s house, the common thread remains Condon's ability to personalize the sound.March of the Zapotec marks the continuing emergence of a musician who has only shown an inkling of where he is headed. And while the road may be long, every stop along the way invites a new experience. Enjoy the latest.
After the remarkable efforts of Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup, Zach Condon's offbeat hybridization of traditional Eastern European motifs and Western indie pop reached a glorious pinnacle. But where take things from there? Rather than resting on his laurels, the 23-year-old Santa Fe native packed his bags, hopped on a plane to the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, and began recording a selection of new material with local 19-piece collective the Jimenez Band. Aided by a translator to help communicate their compositional ideas, Condon and his cohorts worked tirelessly on March of the Zapotec, a slew of songs composed in the small weaver village of Teotitlan del Valle during the spring of 2008.
Condon's self-confessed Francophile leanings still run strong, particularly in his Jacques Brel-meets-Serge Gainsbourg vocal delivery, and Balkan folk patterns continue to remain at the core of his musical references. Yet his flourishing interest in Mexican wedding and funeral music, highlighted by the animated huffs and puffs of a "barely rehearsed" brass band, inevitably takes these recordings somewhere different. March of the Zapotec is the sound of a musician continuing to evolve and, most importantly, allowing himself to be persuaded by his inspirations without losing sight of his own creative personality. Like many young, culture-hungry travelers, Condon seems to be embracing as much as possible, re-shaping his interior musical landscape as he continues to learn the tricks of the trade from masters and street performers in various parts of the world.
Just as Mexican funerals are known not only for reflection and mourning but also for the celebration of life, the six songs that comprise March of the Zapotec sound as joyous as they do melancholy. The jolly three-step-waltz of "La Llorona" and "The Shrew" wouldn't sound out of place on a soundtrack to Emir Kusturica's dark and memorably shambolic wedding scene in the film Black Cat, White Cat. "The Akara" is similarly expressive, introduced by a bold but despondent trumpet fanfare that slips into a lively melody as Condon sings through his malaise, "so long, my fate has changed, it's hindering."
But March of the Zapotec is just one half of this intriguing and disparate 2xEP. The second is very different, and closer in sound to Condon's pre-Beirut bedroom recordings, when he went under the alias Realpeople. Having spent years making electronic music as a teenager before focusing on the elaborate acoustic inventions he is now known for as Beirut, it seems only natural for Condon's older methods to finally see the light of day. Although he has more than proved his mettle as a masterful, highly visionary musician, it will perhaps be a relief to fans of Beirut that Holland does not feel out of place beside the material that initially drew Condon to popular attention. It is after all, an extension of an already strong musical direction or, in his words, "different aspects of my personality."
These five songs, mostly recorded alone, begin with the lyrically superb "My Night With the Prostitute From Marseille" and take more than a few notes from the Magnetic Fields and, perhaps a little surprisingly, Boards of Canada. "Venice", with its dreamily atmospheric intro, which gracefully crackles in the background like old letters burning on a fire, is a fine example of Condon's apparent knack for constructing a home-- whether permanent or temporary-- on a wide range of melodic turf.
As a concept, this EP could be seen as rather puzzling with its marrying of such stylistically different material. However, listening to the two discs back to back allows insight into the development of Condon's burgeoning ideas. Rather than re-tracing the path that made him popular, he has hacked into the wilderness of his new inspirations, no matter how divergent, and emerged triumphant. As another of his favorite French luminaries, Jean-Luc Godard, once famously said: "It's not where you take things from, it's where you take them to."
— Mia Clarke, February 20, 2009