A March into New Territory

Beirut Music Review

In the past few years, Zach Condon and his ten-piece orchestra, known as Beirut, have proved they can wear many hats. They can be a winding musical box of 1920s Paris, or a haunting theme song to a black and white film about old Normandy. They can be part wailing old gypsy and part young boy’s romantic croon to a Balkan street band’s brass section, or, they can simply be your high school marching band gone wild on speed. They can take you to the bunkers of the Balkans, to a Mexican funeral procession, or to a Long Island carousel of circus performers playing a plethora of instruments with no names, and with this exact kind of exploring spirit, Condon and crew have managed to silently assure that their love letters of music from all corners of time and space will slowly take us through the ages and around the world, whether we’re aboard for the ride or not.

In Beirut’s most recent February 2009 release, March of the Zapotec and Realpeople: Holland, a double EP, Zach Condon and his imagination challenge the expectations of fans yet again by experimenting with a different kind of musical mash-up, one that taps into a new Mexican brass inspiration, and the other that dates back to the pre-Beirut synthesized work that Condon first explored as a teenager; most importantly, however, one that diverges from the neo-Balkan meets European folk meets Western pop category he has reluctantly been put in as of late. And although the sounds and rhythms of these very, very different artistic ventures of the new release showcase the same knack for indifferent adventure that has made Beirut so captivating from the start, there is also a strange sense that the new disc is more of a personal palate-cleansing project of sorts for the maturing Condon — a let-me-get-this-out-of-my-system approach, quite similar to his other EP releases — rather than an actual new direction for the band. Interestingly enough, however, the music still manages to grow on you (after a few thorough listens, granted) in unexpected ways.

For the first six songs on, March of the Zapotec, Condon collaborates with Band Jimenez, a local 19-piece Mexican Banda group from Oaxaca, Mexico, known more for playing school rallies and funeral processions than with a burgeoning American musician. But the turnout is exciting and seemingly natural, nonetheless; another taste-test of culture similar to many songs on Beirut’s two previous albums Gulag Orkestar (2006) and The Flying Club Cup (2007). There is the same emphasis on big, powerful brass melodies and soft, haunting vocals, best seen in “La Llorona,” a clear standout, and similarly in “The Akara” and “The Shrew,” songs with greater concentration on local sounds rather than vocals and lyrics, but ones which are accentuated by Condon’s effortlessly pleasing wails nonetheless. Other songs like “On a Bayonet,” something one would imagine to be straight out of a Oaxaca funeral procession, and “My Wife,” a slowed down polka-waltz of sorts, on the other hand, put the spotlight on the understated talent of Band Jimenez and the unique sounds native to the area they come from, which interestingly enough, proves to satisfy the very “worldly” aspect that many look to, or expect, Beirut to produce.

In contrast, for the latter songs of the disc, Holland, an entirely different vision of Condon is revealed, a far more upbeat distortion of electronic sounds he created in the comfort of his own room, and one that he refers to as his “dirty little secret.” Under the alias “Realpeople,” a name Condon used when he first started out with his musical endeavors as a Santa-Fe teen in 2002, the songs are seemingly straying for people who haven’t heard the synth-pop meets Euro-techno-esque rhythms of Condon’s earliest unreleased recordings (or even the tease of “Fountains and Tramways,” a song featured on the Pompeii EP of early 2007); but it’s a fresh tribute to the inspirations he drew on in his younger years — mainly Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields’ first CDs — and the songs are undoubtedly reminiscent of that exact sound. Although “No Dice,” the ending track, is probably the most jarring in its video-game-European-disco nature, songs like “The Concubine” and “Venice” show that the Beirut which listeners have come to know is still there indeed. Even songs like “My Wife, Lost in the Wild” and “My Night with the Prostitute form Marseille” show the same hidden melodies and typical-Condon vocals of previous albums, only far more overshadowed by an experimental electronic beat; which although may take some adjustment to enjoy (or a lot of adjustment, or, none at all), still stays true to the Beirut sound — if there is any — on some level.

But is a personal undertaking like Holland enough to satisfy the loyal fan base which is not necessarily accustomed to such a “pop-ish” and “electronic” sound? Although the initial reaction might be one of disappointment, especially to listeners who purely fell in love with Condon for his whimsical gypsy slash bohemian slash circus-show scores, the vocals throughout these “Realpeople” songs — the same soft, poignant, and somersaulting melodies that unify all of Zach Condon’s work, more or less — manage to make the music an intriguing project that deserves an open mind regardless of the musical genre it may fall into at first listen.

After all, as someone who was catapulted into the so-called indie-world of music after Gulag Orkestar, Beirut’s first major undertaking quickly gained acclaim in the summer of 2006, the ability to mesh personal visions with the expectations of a new and highly critical fan base is a difficult, if impossible, task for any musician to take on so early in their career. And in many ways, the idealized story of “the” Zach Condon and his musical upbringing (of trumpets, French horns, xylophones, and accordions among many other instruments) is just as crucial to his career as it is problematic, for it puts a certain pressure to attest his wunderkid and globetrotter-status to new levels, and hence, to please all those who have put that very pressure on him.

A Santa Fe native who dropped out of high school at 16 and traveled to Europe almost a year later, lending his ear to the sounds and styles of street musicians and gaining an unabashed fascination in all things French, his European influences are definitively clear in Beirut’s recordings. Even his voice, although undoubtedly unique in its own right, is in many ways a personal tribute to one of his greatest influence, the Belgium singer and songwriter Jacques Brel; and although Condon’s croons are far more innocent and whimsical, because, well, in many ways he simply is more innocent and whimsical, the same type of passion that his idol was known for is still there, adding a certain mature quality to his music which allows him to transcend age groups and genres.

So although the contradicting sounds of March of the Zapotec and Realpeople: Holland make it a hard release to immediately appreciate like the former CDs of Beirut, the new ideas and directions being explored show a certain unfiltered and fearless growth of the mastermind behind the band, one that will surely continue to take listeners in new directions, time zones, and periods.