Friday, February 20, 2009

Beirut Review Double Shot.

It doesn't get much better than positive Pitchfork and Dusted reviews.

An 8.1 from Pitchfork:

Beirut / Realpeople:
March of the Zapotec / Holland

[Pompeii / Ba Da Bing!; 2009]

Rating: 8.1

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 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

Favorable review by Dusted:
Artist: Beirut
Album: March of The Zapotec and Realpeople Holland
Label: Pompeii Records
Review date: Feb. 16, 2009

Zach Condon is one of those people who draw a lot of inspiration from the places they visit. His much-adored debut Gulag Orkestar was ostensibly an homage to Balkan folk music (although it also reflected other European orchestral and big band influences). His second full-length, The Flying Club Cup, was his western Europe album, a gloss on the catalogs of Jacques Brel or Charles Aznavour.

After he released The Flying Club Cup, Condon announced that he was taking a break from Beirut, citing difficulties from his constant touring schedule. Now, just a year later, Beirut is back and apparently refreshed. Condon’s released a new EP of Beirut material and an EP of songs from Realpeople, the synthpop band that, before Beirut, was Condon’s primary outlet.

March of the Zapotec bills itself as “new recordings from the state of Oaxaca,” and the album was inspired by a trip that Condon and some friends took to the town of Teotitlan del Valle, just outside of Oaxaca. The EP contains one field recording of a band playing in El Zocolo Plaza, and a local ground called Band Jimenez makes a contribution on several tracks. Condon wrote the songs, inspired by what he heard in Oaxaca, and recorded them either in Teotitlan del Valle or back home in Brooklyn.

Going back to his first album, Condon has often had more success as an individual songwriter than he has putting together a full album’s worth of material. In part, this is because his work claims inspiration from a specific place but almost necessarily romanticizes it and elides the more unpleasant aspects. The Flying Club Cup, for instance, evoked an imagined France of 75 years ago, in which all the people are roguish sophisticates who listen to only the best music. This idea inspired very good individual pop songs but it’s difficult for a contemporary songwriter to work in this style without a lot of it sounding the same, or without the conceit wearing thin.

It’s an easier thing to pull off during the course of a 15-minute EP, however, and the songs on March of the Zapotec have a looser, more experimental feel. Some, like “La Llorana” and “The Akara” are divided into several movements, such that part of the song may be the work of Band Jimenez while another part may be Condon recording at home in Brooklyn. Other songs are entirely instrumental. None of them are likely to go into heavy rotation, but they do show Condon expanding his band’s creative reach.

The second EP, Holland could not be more different, at least in terms of its backstory. Realpeople was a bedroom recording project that Condon worked on before starting Beirut. He has already released some of this material; “My Night With the Prostitute From Marseilles,” a song not as risqué as that title would lead you to believe, was part of a charitable compilation last year, and “Venice” was on a compilation given to subscribers to The Believer. Those are probably the two strongest songs, each reminiscent of early Magnetic Fields albums. The rest of the songs are enjoyable, although perhaps because this is a side project, they have an unfinished quality to them that sounds like it was purposeful: the last song, “No Dice” is just a repetition of a few simple hooks. “The Concubine,” with its accordion and trumpet, seems like a draft of a Beirut song left unfinished.

The two EPs here may be just a palette cleanser, or a chance for Condon to try out some new material after a hiatus. March of the Zapotec and Holland won’t get people as stirred up as Gulag Orkestar but they do suggest some interesting new directions.

By Tom Zimpleman

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