What’s the best way to earn your indie stripes? Why, through extended collaboration with one of the scene’s most revered young heroes, of course. And in Alaska in Winter’s case, that means Zach Condon, aka Beirut, coming in to infuse his Eastern European flavours with your icy electronic templates.
Except that’s far too cynical a tack with which to approach Dance Party in the Balkans, especially since its honcho, Brandon Bethancourt, spent his own Condon-esque exploratory soiree immersed in the musical heritage of mainland Europe. Given this, it might be better to see the pair as natural-born bedfellows rather than a big fish/little fish collaboration.
Mind you, it’s a kinship in ethos, but rarely in execution. Indeed, the persistent wash of blog waves made by “Close Your Eyes - We Are Blind”, Dance Party‘s most Condon-flavoured dish, belies the fact that, actually, Alaska in Winter and Beirut reside in entirely different spectrums, if not ones quite as distant as the locations they namecheck. While that track begins with Condon’s trademark combo of sunkissed ukulele and wounded howl, it’s the frosty mid-tempo electronica it morphs into that is a better benchmark for the album as whole.
It’s Bethancourt’s beats that set the pace of Dance Party, and they’re not the ones you’d expect from that title. With downtempo drum loops as the framework, the record is set to chilled, in both senses of the term. Spacious, consistent, and understated, Alaska in Winter seem guided towards eyes-closed reclining, even if the old “background listening” adage is the classic disparagement-through-praise of music criticism.
But Dance Party has a trump card: Although at its heart there’s a chillout album, it’s one that’s been passed around through enough circles to have gathered the imprints of styles and flavours a plenty. It’s as though Bethancourt took his splintered loops, drum machine, and slo-mo synth on his Balkan travels, coming back with them ready-infused with sweeping strings, swooning brass, and romantic vocal harmonies he found there.
Top of the pile is “Balkan Lowrider Anthem”, which feeds a mournful violin section courtesy of Heather Trost (she of A Hawk and a Hacksaw renown) through a mesh of skittering beats and restless piano before making its way into “Lovely Lovely Love”‘s slow-burning, bass-heavy miasma. Fittingly, it’s the title track that proves to be the most assured fusion of Dance Party‘s dichotomy, blending together seamlessly the album’s organic and electronic facets and rendering Condon’s horn part of the flesh itself rather than an authenticating adornment.
And although the rural charm of Dance Party‘s brass and string sections prove to be embellishments and not the album’s main attraction, they do come to the rescue when Bethancourt ventures too far into the cold. “Your Red Dress”, for instance, is a necessary reminder of the dangers of the vocoder; an implement so graceless that it can reduce even the most emotive of vocals to a dispassionate, robotic warble. Bethancourt, however, has an evident soft spot for the thing, so it’s lucky that when he indulges his whimsy, Condon is on hand to blow some brassy swagger back into proceedings. Likewise, Rosina Roibol’s viola and Condon’s flugelhorn bring a little refinement to mechanical stomp of “Staring at the Sun”. But despite these saving graces, that track can be marked off as trimmable surplus on an album of near hour-long playtime. Likewise, the hazy “Harmonijak” has its own excess fat, and would benefit from being stripped down to its bare piano bones.
But taken as a whole, Dance Party in the Balkans is as assured an album as you’d expect from someone with an all-star collaborative guest list. More than that, Bethancourt shows himself to be an astute hybridist, equally capable of infusing his own icy landscapes with more exotic flavours as he is of creating those landscapes in the first place.