Beirut's second LP purportedly takes inspiration from French chanson of yesteryear (as opposed to the Balkan folk of yesteryear). Bandleader Zach Condon has found a new home in Paris, and a new muse as well, quickly absorbing fodder from the likes of Francois Hardy or Jacques Brel. The music remains quite recognizably Beirut--in all its oom-pa glory--but the production value is stepped up a notch. It's through the dense arrangements that it reaches new heights, this without question being the fullest offering yet. The band appeared on Owen Pallet's (Final Fantasy/Arcade Fire) new album in exchange for the use of Arcade Fire's Masonic church studio, along with the exotic pile of instruments within. Pallet ended up contributing several string arrangements and the band made full use of the studio. The result is a truly orchestral take on the simpler gypsy stomp of Gulag Orkestar or the straight-up eight-piece live band of the Lon Gisland EP. Opener "Nantes" features a perfectly broken organ and introduces the wealth of percussion that continues throughout the album, as well as some samples of French TV or radio (the most explicit Franco-features are these sampled tidbits). Waltzing glockenspiels give way to a celebratory, raucous chorus on "La Banlieu." "Un Dernier Verre" features a skittering, jazzy piano bit (in 3/4 time, natch). The Flying Club Cup lacks the immediate hits that made Gulag Orkestar explode (like "Postcards from Italy" or "Mount Wroclai"). It works as an album rather than just a collection of songs. It's a more pensive presentation--dare I say it: more mature. Beirut remains mind-boggling work for a 21-year-old, and it's exciting to watch Condon's musical palette expand as he gathers the life experience to match his voice. --Jason Pace
Review by Marisa Brown
Credit Zach Condon for not acting his age. While many 21-year-olds are working on finishing up their undergraduate years, Condon is making albums. And not just any messily-recorded-in-the-garage (or GarageBand) albums, but fully developed and composed and realized albums. His first full-length, under the name Beirut, Gulag Orkestar, with its Eastern European-inspired horns and strings, a kind of Neutral Milk Hotel-meets-gypsy field recordings, was adored in the indie rock world, and its successor, The Flying Club Cup, is an even more mature accomplishment. Though not as immediately catchy as his debut, The Flying Club Cup contains a sense of intrigue that pulls the listener in beguilingly, twisting and swaying and marching its way through the romanticized ideas of the Balkan town, the rustic Southern French village, the small Italian trattoria. It's elaborate New World indie pop that tries to touch the Old as best it can. Flügelhorns and accordions and mandolins line the 13 songs here like old bricks, Condon's voice rising elegiacally over in layered swells, tired and wise, inspired by, but not limited to, the rich French musical past, from Tino Rossi to Jacques Brel. Because Beirut plays music that feels like it's been reflected off a long and storied life, there's the possibility for unearned pretension to appear, but there's a real sincerity, and a sense of life, that finds its way into the songs here. Condon and his collaborators (which include Final Fantasy's Owen Pallett, who sings on the lovely "Cliquot") have not forgotten the kind of jocularity and community inherent in the folk traditions they pull from, so even as violins, organs, and harpsichords play dramatic and acute melodies and the vocals ascend to a feverish intensity, that feeling of being in the back of some tavern, passing around dishes and glasses and singing aloud with your compatriots, is present, and keeps things grounded, more real. "In the Mausoleum" balances syncopated piano with minor melodies and an ominous upright bass, while both "Guyamas Sonora" and the title track use dramatic horns to convey a kind of triumph in the prosperity of the form/tradition. It's thoughtful and fun and sophisticated, utterly alluring, another fantastic success by Zach Condon.
The Flying Club Cup
[Ba Da Bing!; 2007]
More than three minutes into the Lon Gisland EP's "Elephant Gun", the horns pause, and the song lingers on a few of Zach Condon's syrupy syllables before returning to Beirut's strongest melody. It's the sound of Condon and his band shedding its layers of self-packed cultural baggage. As Pitchfork's Brandon Stosuy wrote earlier this year of Lon Gisland: "Condon has shown that, yes, there are songs behind the international flavors, that his work would be interesting even if he kept the trumpet at home."
Surprisingly, Condon's horn remains in Brooklyn for the bulk of his sophomore album, The Flying Club Cup. Condon himself returns to France-- the place where he was first exposed to the Balkan music that colored much of this debut, Gulag Orkestar. It's clearly a place he loves. "Once we got there, we kept trying to go to other places, but we didn't feel like traveling so much as being in Paris," he said when I interviewed him a year ago. It's reflected here, with both Gallic brass and accordion and song titles that reference French cities and locations. Crucially, however, Flying Club Cup would be a triumph even with those layers stripped away; that's not to say that the cultural patina obscures the "real" songs underneath, but its removal allows us to sidestep mind-numbing questions about authenticity and intention.
Flying Club Cup deftly showcases Condon's gifts: "Nantes" sounds exotic without directly referencing a particular era or feeling, and "A Sunday Smile"-- despite being about specific people and places-- evokes universal sensations such as sleepiness and warmth. "Un Dernier Verre (Pour la Route)" and "Guyamas Sonora" show off Condon's increased love of piano-driven pop songcraft-- as well his band's frequent trick of introducing the best part of the song (here, the way the lithe percussion and ukulele contrast with the heavy accordion and his vocal layering) three-quarters of the way through. "In the Mausoleum" begins with some "Come On! Feel the Illinois!"-ish piano (Sufjan Stevens playing the U.S. cultural cannibal to Condon's worldly connoisseur), but what I like best is the violins, arranged by Final Fantasy's Owen Pallett (in conjunction with Beirut's violinist Kristin Ferebee), which are strong throughout the record and provide a perfect, light-as-lashes counter to Condon's thick instrumentation.
Vocal layering is another Beirut gift, but it also weighs heavily on each track, which is appropriate when nearly every song is about feeling weary or old beyond your years. But despite the well-traveled themes, Condon's vocal melodies, as on standout "Cliquot", are still dangerously romantic, veering closely to musical theater. Condon also does well by "Forks and Knives (Le Fête)", where the instruments hold back to give him more room to sing. And here, once you get past this spent-cigarette, empty-hotel story he's selling, it's obvious that what Condon lacks in lyrical ability, he more than makes up for in prosody. He has an impressive flow, a delicate glide that perfectly compliments the oft-commented-upon exoticism that tends to divide Beirut listeners. On The Flying Cup Club, and maybe on all of Beirut's records, this exoticism takes the form not of alienation but of a search for a familiar place within what seems (or sounds) unfamiliar, difficult, or repulsive. It's the process of searching that untethers the record from any limiting sense of place, be it an Arrondissement in Paris or a village in the Balkans.
-Jessica Suarez, October 09, 2007