A ukulele, a flugelhorn and a trumpet walk into a recording studio together…
No, it’s not the beginning of a joke, it’s part of the recipe for the array of sounds comprising Beirut, the band headed by Zach Condon which defies placement into a genre because it is influenced by so many of them. In America, it would probably be easiest to assign it to indie rock, with influences from jazz, Balkan and Eastern European music, and the modern French chanson. Knowing this, and having a general idea of what to expect from this description still doesn’t prepare you for the powerful experience of listening to their music. Beirut soaks you in sound and then wrings you out, leaving you exhilarated, relaxed, and, yes, a little bit in awe at what feels like a connection with something bigger than yourself.
That’s not to say that their music is intimidating. At times it is playful and joyous, leaving you wondering why you’re not dancing in a field with every family member and friend you have. The ukulele smiles with you, and horns scatter notes the way a farmer in the old country hand sows grain. At other times, mournfulness and loss pervade the music, while at the same time comforting you with the solidarity of a grief which has been felt and retold countless times. Condon and his cohorts are masters at creating an aural mise en scene, with lyrics that either tell a story or transport you with their chant-like quality.
When I first started listening to Beirut the main albums that were out were Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup, as well as a handful of EP’s. Their 2009 EP combo March of the Zapotec and Holland has a bit more of an electronic sound, particularly Holland. It looks like this trend continues onto their newest album, The Rip Tide, which just came out in August 2011. I’ve only heard it once, and while nothing has grabbed me as strongly as their other albums do, I am a horrible judge of music the first time I listen to it, so it won’t do to be harsh. I will say, the songs “Goshen,” “Vagabond,” “The Peacock,” and the title track “The Rip Tide” seem promising. Given that I’ve inadvertently listed nearly half the album, there is hope.
Their back catalog is definitely worth listening to, since to me some of the most transporting songs come from their earlier material. It’s hard to pick a few to talk about when most are so good, but “Elephant Gun,” “Postcards from Italy,” “Napoleon on the Bellerophon,” “Gulag Orkestar,” and “La Banlieue” are ones to pay attention to.
With the presence of so many other musicians/instruments playing on the tracks, you get the sense that the band is more than just a neat collaboration; it’s a motley group of people getting together and playing because it is so much fun. Although their sound continues to evolve, their earlier roots are still there in the newer music. The ukulele and trumpet are ever present, as well as the rich tapestry that Condon creates by layering his voice over and over. Also there is still the sense that Beirut is reaching for something that all of us can recall, providing a path back to memories that are just at the fingertips, waiting to be worked out on any instrument you can find.