You would never want 21-year old Zach Condon as a tour guide. The wünderkind who used multitrack recording to birth the band Beirut in his parents’ basement clearly wants his music to be transporting, but his itinerary’s a little shaky. His band borrows its name from the capital of Lebanon. Its first album, Gulag Orkestar (2006), was intended to invoke the Balkanks. Beirut’s latest, The Flying Cub Cup, is purportedly French. The liner notes are covered with “found” black-and-white vacation photos from an archaic Parisian photo album, and some of the songs take their names from French cities. The album was supposedly inspired by a 1910 photo of hot air balloons in flight near the Eiffel Tower.
Beirut’s ethereal and richly textured music could be a wonderful way to take a trip back in European time. Beirut became an indie darling for using horns, accordions, and other subtle anachronisms to push the style’s boundaries. The production is tenderly beautiful. But Condon’s France sounds pretty much the same as his Balkans. This wouldn’t be such a problem if so many of the songs on The Flying Cub Cup didn’t sound so much like each other.
On this disc, Beirut is a one trick pony, albeit one with a pretty good trick. All the songs are essentially based on a four- or eight-bar series of chords that restlessly loop back on themselves. Their moods are confined to a narrow compass, too, either a mournfully minor or wistfully major.
These factors work well to produce the romantic ambiance of a small, smoke-filled Balkan bar or Parisian bistro, while suggesting a tumbling street outside the door. The album’s first song, “Nantes”, begins small, Condon singing accompanied only by keyboards. But after he finishes the first couplet, a barrage of percussion enters — then a trumpet — then more brass and a string section — as if a parade were passing by. Then there’s a retreat, perhaps to the apartment of someone watching from above, a solo bass line played beneath a fragment of a French TV soundtrack. Then the parade makes one last swing around the block before fading out.
It’s a stunning performance. But maybe my lungs have gotten coddled by a life in smoke-free cities — track after track of this atmosphere is suffocating, and Condon’s arrangements don’t help. He has one of the most distinctive voices I’ve heard of late, velvety and piquant like a 78% cacao chocolate bar. I like to eat such intense desserts with coffee or bourbon, something to complement its richness, and I like Condon’s voice solo or backed by the tinny ukelele on “Forks and Knives”. But he uses overdubbing to sing harmony with himself on virtually every song. When combined with equally rich horns and accordions, this constant Condon chorus makes me recall a dessert I once had in Venice: a block of hazelnut/chocolate gelato completely submerged in whipped cream. My first bite was delightfully decadent, but I was nauseous after the second. Two tracks of The Flying Cub Cup is all I could handle in one sitting.
While Condon had other musicians collaborating on this album earlier in the process than on Gulag Orkestar, the album falls victim to the sins of computer-assisted recording. Digital editing makes the creation of loops addictively easy, and a cyclical song structure facilitates the addition of more and more instruments. Digital editing also tempts a musician to keep adding things, an irresistible impulse to a mind as creative as Condon’s.
Gulag Orkestar was something of an indie sensation, and there’s no reason The Flying Club Cup won’t get a similarly warm reception — the music’s virtually the same. I hope that this success doesn’t let Condon avoid pushing himself on his next release. He may be a one-trick pony now, but he’s got the potential to grow into a very compelling circus.