[2 September 2011]
When Beirut released their debut full-length Gulag Orkestar, it became something of a sleeper hit in the indie community. It was new and different, inventively twisting Balkan folk music into modern baroque pop, an impressive debut that completely earned the cult following and amount of critical acclaim it received. Gulag Orkestar was tremendously moving in unexpected ways, and it always remained a fresh, interesting listen. Their follow-up, The Flying Club Cup, was an equally electrifying exploration of world music through a pop lens. Naturally, I was excited to see where the band would head next.
But on its latest release The Rip Tide, Beirut too often moves away from its world-folk origins into a more generic sound, one that has more in common with an Apple commercial than their breakthrough album. It’s not necessarily a bad move—the songs are all well-composed and technically challenging—but The Rip Tide lacks an emotional core, or at the very least, an interesting hook in lieu of something more substantial. Most of the songs are just sort of there, not really resolving or going any place in particular. Here, Zach Condon and his bandmates strum around on ukuleles and toot a few horns, and in the end you’re left wondering exactly which song you just listened to. There’s just not much of anything to latch onto.
And maybe that’s the heart of the problem. The Rip Tide is, in every technical sense, a good album. The arrangements are complex without being overbearing, the songwriting mostly remembers to include hooks, and the instrumentation flows together particularly well. But somehow, it still ends up as a lackluster effort. By removing many of the worldly influences that made its early efforts so unique and refreshing, Beirut has fallen into a generic and uninspiring funk. Instead of the rousing world tour the previous albums offered listeners, The Rip Tide just seems content to lazily ape Belle and Sebastian and Illinois-era Sufjan Stevens.
“Payne’s Bay”, for instance, begins with a round of quiet guitar lines and muted horns that feels explicitly like a half-hearted rip-off of the aforementioned groups. By the time the song’s slow build reaches its conclusion, the barrage of horns just seems uninspired and even boring. While the track reaches for something special with its supposedly grand climax, it just falls flat in the end. Unfortunately, too many of the songs on the record waste their potential in this way.
But maybe ‘’m being too harsh. While it isn’t a classic album, The Rip Tide is still a well-played, well-produced record. And honestly, some of the songs are pretty fantastic. “The Rip Tide”, for one, begins as a downbeat instrumental that grows into a particularly moving and varied piece. The slow, melancholy piano that starts off “Goshen” subtly builds on itself, until it becomes a powerful, enthralling crescendo after a slow, melodic build. It’s an absolute gem of a song, one that any fan should cherish for a long time to come. But while these songs are beautiful and successful, they aren’t really enough to elevate the whole album out of mediocrity.
The problem is that just about every track on the record thinks it has to grow in the same way. They each try building to a satisfying climax, but only a few of them succeed in any tangible fashion. I have to think that as an EP, The Rip Tide would be a rousing success. But as it is, there are just too many bland, uninspiring tracks that drag down the whole experience. Hopefully next time around, Beirut really considers what makes it unique as a band and hone in on those strengths, rather than trying to jettison what makes it truly special.