PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Alaska in Winter: Dance Party in the Balkans

An album that sounds as though Brandon 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.

Alaska in Winter

Dance Party in the Balkans

Label: Milan
US Release Date: 2008-03-04
UK Release Date: 2007-07-30

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.