Inside the globe-spanning pop of Beirut

Worlds in flux
By REYAN ALI  |  August 21, 2012

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Pictures on walls have held great meaning to Zach Condon. For 2006’s Gulag Orkestar, the debut from Condon’s bedroom project Beirut, he put up an image in his room for inspiration. It was of two women leaning on a car at dusk — a photo he ripped out of a library book in Europe and appreciated so much that it eventually became Gulag’s cover. He took a similar tack with 2007’s The Flying Club Cup, Beirut’s inaugural record as a full band. While putting together Cup, he placed above his desk a color photo of the title French balloon race. Although Condon wasn’t able to use that image as a cover because of expensive licensing fees, it was still crucial to the album’s development.

Last year’s The Rip Tide had a different story. The New Mexico–bred, Brooklyn-based band’s third album, released last year on Pompeii Records, is the first Condon has written without having an image on his wall to match the process. Its cover is a considerably duller gray-brown canvas with only the album and group name on it, marking Beirut at their most minimalist. “He’s very hardheaded in a way and very bold in his thoughts and opinions and music, and with The Rip Tide, I think he realized that that boldness can be inhibiting on some levels,” says bassist Paul Collins, speaking by phone from Vancouver. “He doesn’t have to front like, ‘Okay, this is a Balkan thing’ or ‘This is French thing.’ It doesn’t have to be so otherworldly. It can be more ambiguous, it can be more introspective, it can be more fluid. In that sense, even though it’s a way more concise album, it’s far more abstract of an idea than those previous records, which is kind of interesting.”

Collins’s use of “otherworldly” is particularly amusing since “worldly” is the perfect word to describe the band’s aesthetic. On top of their name, a plethora of songs reference disparate places: “Santa Fe,” “East Harlem,” “Goshen,” “Bratislava,” “Postcards from Italy.” They’re all well-traveled intellectuals; by 16, Condon was already scouring Eastern Europe in search of the Balkan folk music that would spark Beirut. A YouTube clip finds the band performing 2007’s whimsical, sweet number “Nantes” on a Paris street using an accordion, trumpet, guitar, violin,
and trashcans. At their core, Beirut construct baroque pop, but they pluck sounds from several cultures: gypsy music, Mexican funeral music, French chanson. If you want to visit an aged, unfamiliar place without actually going anywhere, exotic and romantic treks to somewhere far from America are this band’s specialty.

That said, conciseness, as Collins notes, is what sets The Rip Tide apart. The Flying Club Cup overflows with emphatic sounds and is intent on soaring. While still majestic, Rip Tide has more restrained instrumentation and song structures, with only nine songs compared to Cup’s 13 or Gulag’s 11.

Collins doesn’t speculate on how Condon’s scope will change from here on out, but he’s enthusiastic about the experimentation he sees in Beirut’s future. “He’s had something very clear that he had to grasp — music of Neutral Milk Hotel, the Balkans, or Jacques Brel in France, or with the [March of the] Zapotec EP, synth-pop on one side and Mexican funeral music on the other,” the bassist says. “These are all these really clear ideas. Eventually, in order to grow as an artist, you’ve got to let go of that clarity in order to get some place new and interesting.”

BEIRUT | House of Blues, 15 Lansdowne St, Boston | August 28 @ 7 pm | All Ages | $27.50-$40 | 888.693.2583 or houseofblues.com

  Topics: Music Features , Music, Beirut, Beirut,  More more >
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