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, 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