Beirut / Realpeople: March of the Zapotec / Holland

March of the Zapotec
Ba Da Bing

Beirut has always been at its best when bucking expectation — or rather, choosing to operate in an entirely different place. Essentially, Balkan brass music’s not cool; baroque trumpet flourishes and waltzes aren’t integral to many popular acts these days. But the self-sufficiency of the group’s sound was what was compelling. In effect, Beirut seemed to spring up from some other world, indifferent to the currents of contemporary sound. And this unconcern, though in lesser hands could have struck hollow opportunism, produced its own compulsion. In comparison, the chansons of The Flying Club Cup sounded somehow staid — not at all bad, but perhaps lacking that feeling of being cut straight from an obsessive’s loving head. It had, in a way, this transitory, touristy quality. If all Condon does is traipse around the world absorbing cultures and traditional music and regurgitating them in his distinctive voice, the results may be occasionally thrilling, but the novelty will probably wear thin over time.

So how will Beirut sustain itself? The group’s answer, so far, is just to do a bit of traipsing. Condon spent some time in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he met the Jimenez Band, a 16-piece group from Teotitlan del Valle. No skin off the noses of the guys who regularly gig with Condon, but these musicians can play. The EP that Condon + Jimenez Band have produced, March of the Zapotec, is nuanced and sophisticated. Condon is immensely respectful of his musicians here, allowing the band to take centre stage on a number of instrumental tracks; even where he does sing, Condon’s melodies adorn, rather than define, the songs. They’re likely to enter after a long introduction, be stated once, repeated a few times, then disappear allowing the music to expand in new directions. A perfect example of this is the exquisite trumpet waltz that ends the EP, “The Shrew”; along with “The Akara”, Condon’s showing us a more refined Beirut – the arrangements are consistently full and effective, contrasting juxtapositions of timbre and texture both within and across songs.

The oompah brass of “La Llorna” and “My Wife” become imbued with a feeling of fractured melancholy beneath Condon’s voice. He messes with ill-fitting time — the way his multitracked voice sits slightly out of time with the traditional rhythms and waltzes of the music — and that still gives his music its electricity.

Actually, there’s something of that initial Beirut otherworldliness on March of the Zapotec that recaptures that feeling, on first hearing Gulag Orkestar, of surprised discovery. The 30-second opening fanfare announces a songwriter completely disinterested by this modern, technological innovation. You wish this extended for a full album. At the same time, you’re filled with exciting ideas for future directions (Couldn’t the mournful trumpet glissando of “The Akara” be translated easily into an interpolation of New Orleans funeral celebration? How would klezmer music’s waltzes and minor tonalities augment Condon’s songwriting?).

In contrast, Holland, which is credited to Condon’s pre-Beirut solo moniker Realpeople, is much more of a conventional EP. It opens with the single “My Night With the Prostitute From Marseille” (which appeared on a Natalie Portman-curated charity CD in 2007) and continues in exposition of the project’s signature sound. What does this say about the claim of Condon-as-indifferent-genius, collating traditions from other ethnicities and crafting out of them a unified musicality?

Truth is, it is more difficult to rave about Realpeople, as attractive as its songs are. Every critic will mention Stephen Merritt — that’s because in this context, Condon and he are robustly alike. But this isn’t new for Condon; we heard hints of these electronic leanings already, on Beirut’s debut. Think of “After the Curtain” or “Scenic World”, take away any hints of brass, and you’ve got the measure of the project. Namely, Condon’s expressive vocals over Postal Service- or Magnetic Fields-style confluent electronica. It’s an attractive but not revolutionary sound.

Nevertheless, there are some moments of characteristically breathtaking Condon songwriting. His melodies still jump unexpected intervals, and hover on his wavering, held-out baritone. True, the artificial synth beats of “My Wife, Lost in the Wild” would have sounded infinitely more convincing as a Beirut song with muted trumpet. But “Venice”, a standout on either EP, recapitulates something of the Jimenez Band’s eulogistic trumpet through Condon’s voice alone and out-of-time synth arpeggii.

The truth is, Zach Condon’s voice is enough to unify the two halves of this substantial release. If you put the album on shuffle, the songs blend into a surprisingly coherent whole. Of course, if you did that, then you’ll miss the subtlety of March of the Zapotec’s pacing – a new, exciting development – which bodes well for the musicality (the overall impact, really) of future albums. Don’t dismiss March of the Zapotec / Holland as an in-between-albums triviality. Beirut’s EP especially is an important step forward for the group, and throughout, Zach Condon’s songwriting only gets more convincing. We don’t need to worry, really, about this ethnic tourism problem; just be confident in this talented songwriter’s ability to assimilate each new sound to his unique and compelling voice.

RATING 8 / 10