Blogs, track-leaking, and peer-to-peer networks were built for albums like this one. Beirut sounds like the remnants of an eastern European caravan, but turns out to be mostly one kid (19-year-old Zach Condon). Pleasing Other, Gulag Orkestar has enough indie touchstones to make it approachable; when you sent that mp3 to your friend a month before the disc’s release date, you could expect that he’d have heard little along those lines, but that he’d like it. Firming up its place in indie and blogland consciousness, Jeremy Barnes performs on about half the tracks, bringing Neutral Milk Hotel authority to the project (even if you’re unlikely to go, “Wow, that’s totally a Barnes accordion line!”). A multi-instrumentalist with indie royalty connection and early underground buzz equals instant canonicity, but it might be worthwhile to consider the music itself.
The 11 tracks of Gulag Orkestar are very good, but not the stunning achievement you might be led to believe they are. Beirut is influenced by styles of music that bind together as “Balkan” (despite being named Beirut and titling songs after places throughout Europe). Even with a number of groups including “Balkan” or “gypsy” or “[clueless rockcrit word]” sounds into unified finished pieces that get catalogued under “rock” instead of “world”, there’s not been tidy genre movement described. Devotchka, Gogol Bordello, Man Man, and Storsveit Nix Noltes all create related but distinct music. It’s misleading to focus on the uniqueness of Beirut’s album. Dig it because you like it, not because there’s nothing like it.
Fortunately, Beirut’s album, while not a career-defining masterpiece, does hold up well against the hype and PBR-aided focus on the foreign. Gulag Orkestar maintains a consistent aesthetic even as the songs vary enough to stay interesting. The simplest way Beirut changes things up is by varying his time signatures. Even a basic alternation between 4/4 and a 3/4 pieces allows the album to expand its rhythmic work on both percussion and strings.
“Scenic World” marks the album’s furthest shift, opening with a toy keyboard riff that sounds like the point in a Nintendo game where you go into the town and don’t have to worry about being attacked. Fittingly, Beirut sings about feeling like “a tired dog licking his wounds in the shade”. The disc’s bloopiest, cheeriest sounding song isn’t a joyful celebration, but a moment of respite. It’s a needed one, as the album mostly maintains heavy tones, and an effective one, as Beirut doesn’t allow himself to escape the general feeling of the disc.
Unfortunately, the heaviness coming out of this track can feel a bit overbearing. “Bratislava” announces itself with horns and agitated drums, reminding us yet again of the importance built into these songs, heavy with meaning and emotion, and needing to remind us of that fact. It’s not that Beirut lacks precision in his craft, it’s that he occasionally lacks subtlety. Rather than building to climaxes or working his specific atmospheres, he too often indulges in an immediate presentation that leaves the listener little breathing room.
“The Bunker” succeeds because he restrains himself. Condon has a lovely voice, and he produces it to great effect, tracking it in rounds and with doubling to fill out the voices his large-band sound desires. That technique sets up the big entrance and slow march that changes the song after its first 90 seconds, and make its softer trumpet and ukelele conclusion an appropriate finish in its echo of the gradual growth of the piece’s opening. Tracks like this one show that Beirut has a gift for composition, arrangement, and production and suggest that, as he gains confidence, Condon might create a truly exceptional album.
To leave consideration of this album with an expectancy of future ones would do Gulag Orkestar a disservice, as it is quite good. He may be working within an excepted (if rarely discussed) style, but he’s forging is own vision, and he usually succeeds in making beautiful music. If there a few places for improvement, it’s only because those traits are worthy of being improved. Even if it sends us to too many pages in our atlas, Beirut’s debut suggests he’s someone we’ll travel with again.