I really like the electric guitar. There’s nothing wrong with the other instruments, it’s just that a distorted electric guitar chord sounds so...right. Like it’s what music was made for. Music that lacked the guitar didn’t appeal to me until about a year ago, when I started getting into electronica and classical, as well as other such genres. So when Beirut came around and I read that their music used no guitars, had an extreme Eastern European influence, and sounded like a mix of Neutral Milk Hotel and Magnetic Fields, I was intrigued.
The brainchild of Zach Condon, Beirut was formed after he dropped out of high school to travel to Europe and check things out. He followed a group of traveling musicians who played instruments like the accordion and mandolin, and soon became enthralled with their music and personalities. He started a band with a few friends, and went from there. As previously stated, Beirut uses no guitars, relying instead on Condon’s beautiful voice and extremely bizarre instrumentation. From cellos to bouzouki, Beirut uses it all, and in perfect amounts at just the right times. For every time you’re left wanting a guitar, a quickly strummed mandolin pops in. Whenever you want distortion, you’re greeted with the explosive trumpets and trombones that form the rhythm section of Beirut.
Of course, the actual songs are what really matters. Though using peculiar instruments already gets Condon a few brownie points with me, it would mean nothing if the songs weren’t well written. You can see my rating, so of course you know they are. However, you’d think Condon, when using his crazy instruments at random times, would stray away from the normal song structure of having a memorable and easily identifiable chorus, as well as repeated verses. The odd thing is, he doesn’t. The only reason the song format doesn’t sound overdone and tired is because of his abnormal instrumentation. “Scenic World” actually uses the same Casio Keyboard chord progression (something ripped almost directly from Magnetic Fields) for the duration of the song. The thing that keeps it from getting boring is the horn section at just the right time to give the song an almost Celtic feel.
The overall vibe one gets from this album is being in a chair outside of a cafe somewhere in Italy, sitting and taking in the beautiful sights and sounds that the city has to offer. If you close your eyes, it’s very easy to feel as though that is really where you are. Underneath all the European influence is a haunting feeling, exemplified best in “Mount Wroclai (Idle Days).” It starts out with a circus-y accordion figure, and then leads into a chorus of Condon and multi-tracked background vocals singing a hauntingly beautiful three part harmony over the constant accordion. As soon as that goes away, the song feels happy again and takes you back to the Italian street corner. It’s that series of minor and major trade-offs that make Gulag Orkestar
truly astounding. They always happen right when you expect them to, but it’s just so beautiful that you ignore the predictability.
However, Gulag Orkestar
does fall flat in a few places. “Postcards From Italy” doesn’t quite nail the laid-back, lazy feeling it tries to produce, most likely due to Condon’s constant vibrato towards the end of his words. “Bratislava” takes a familiar march pattern and adds echoing vocals far in the background, but in the end is too repetitive and boring to really feel like it builds from intro to climax. The faults can be easily overlooked due to the rest of the album ranging from Excellent to Outstanding.
Pop music has almost certainly never sounded more bizarre than it does in Gulag Orkestar
, but it has also never sounded quite this good. Memorable hooks abound, Condon’s gorgeous voice never fails to impress, and his songs never get dull. Those in the market for something entirely different from the norm should pick up Beirut’s debut album.
Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)
Basically all of them but Postcards From Italy and Bratislava