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Beirut - The Flying Club Cup Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 December 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    7
released:    2007
label:    Ba Da Bing
reviewer:    Matt Fink

ImageThough the oft-repeated quote from cultural critic Gerald Early that the United States' lasting legacy to mankind will be “the Constitution, baseball and jazz” might be a bit reductive, there is little denying that Americans enjoy an unusually fertile musical landscape. Due largely to the unique collision of African and Anglo-Saxon culture, it's possible that no other period in human history produced as many vibrant musical variants as the explosion of blues, country, gospel and jazz that came roaring out of the South in the early 20th Century. But the reason rock music and its variants have became entrenched in Western culture is because it became the soundtrack to youth culture, a cycle that has repeated itself every generation since Elvis Presley's hips erected a wall between the music enjoyed by kids and their parents. That said, it's utterly stunning when a young artist - especially one from the United States - throws up his hands and says the vast expanse of the American musical language just isn't for him. Zach Condon is one such artist.

Having gone virtually overnight from being a disinterested college student in New Mexico to the leader of one of indie rock's most-blogged-about “it” bands, Condon had already exhausted his interest in American music by the time he turned 19. At that point, having dropped out of high school to travel around the world, he returned home with the sounds of Balkan brass bands buzzing in his head. Obsessed, he set out to recreate what he heard, by himself in his bedroom, and what would become Beirut's debut was soon born. Gulag Orkestar was the sound of an artist saying Eastern European folk music was as interesting as anything America could offer, and it immediately found an eager audience. Now 21, Condon is back with The Flying Club Cup, and just like before, he's setting up camp a long way from home.
A self-described Francophile since his early adolescence, Condon wasted no time in moving to Paris as soon as he had earned enough money through his music to rent an apartment there, and it comes as little surprise that his second full-length release is largely set in his adopted homeland. Having become smitten with the French pop and chanson music of Jacques Brel, Condon has traded the greasy clatter and visceral throb of his debut for lushly orchestrated arrangements and austerely sighing melodies. Once again, Condon plays most of the instruments in the mix, having recorded the bulk of the tracks in New Mexico before taking them to Montreal for Final Fantasy's Owen Pallett to add his string arrangements. Just like before, Condon has crafted a song cycle that proves his gift with melody and arrangement transcends all genre designations.

As with Beirut's debut, Condon has centered these songs on his dramatically layered vocals, woozy trumpet coughs, wheezing accordion, and plaintive ukulele strums. This time, though, the arrangements are more full and vivid, with swooning violins and rich piano chords adding an austere glaze to Condon's more straightforward tendencies. For certain, the differences between these tracks and those of Gulag Orkestar might not be immediately apparent, as “Nantes” starts out with a familiar pairing of Condon's soft croon with clattering percussion and bleating trumpets. But once the strings enter in layers, the difference is obvious, immediately adding another dimension of glistening atmosphere to the song's otherwise creaky immediacy. Similarly, “La Banlieu” builds from a tinkling glockenspiel intro to a carefully swaying curtain of violin and trumpet countermelodies that soon breaks down to a village square stomp with mandolins and pounding rhythms. The trilling strings and marching snare of “Forks and Knives (La Fete)” are even more pronounced, with Condon's penchant for doe-eyed sentimentality echoed in romantic orchestral swells. Even so, there are moments that hardly differ from Gulag Orkestar at all.

Though the arrangements sound imposingly complex on first listen, closer examination will reveal that Condon continues to write fairly simple chord progressions and repetitious melodies. His arrangements still rely on building layers over those basic foundations, only this time there are more layers in the mix. For the most part, that allows the hazy one-man choir quality of his music to remain, though the character has changed here, with the edges sharper, cleaner and more pronounced. The more straightforward the arrangement, the more those differences dissolve. For example, the simple ukulele strums of “The Penalty” need little more than droning accordion and splashing tambourine to fill out the sonic palette. Further, the lovely piano balladry of “Un Dernier Verre (Pour la Route)” and the playful Vince Guaraldi-ish melody of “In the Mausoleum” show Condon's developing ear for uncomplicated but effecting piano hooks. Not matter what the textural dressing, Condon's exceptional gift for melancholy melodies and dramatic layering lends anything he does an idiosyncratic and homemade quality that, thus far, is his trademark as a songwriter.

To that end, most of the difference in this batch of songs comes courtesy of the distinctively halting rhythm that Condon was lifted from the French pop tradition. Halfway between a waltz and a two-step, these songs often unfold in heavily accented 1-2, 1-2 patterns that emphasize the natural romantic pull of Condon's melodies with dizzying swirls. Lyrically, Condon favors the picturesque, spending much of his energy establishing setting and describing events, rarely digging much deeper than the French churches on Sunday afternoons that serve as the backdrop for his subtle dramas. That said, he's certainly not a bad lyricist, and his writing does well to echo the latent sentiment in his somber melodies.

Most impressively, especially for an artist of his age, Condon has managed to retain and develop the core of his craft despite transplanting himself into a whole new musical language. Still, despite his newfound shift toward the grandiose, the core of his music - pensively swirling melodies, plaintively quaint lyrics, swelling arrangements - remains the same. Wearing the stylistic shifts as another perfectly tailored outfit in his wardrobe, Condon remains a pop craftsman at heart. And while these songs are a bit less immediate than those of his debut, they're ultimately more rewarding, with the subtleties of his craftsmanship obvious only after repeated listening. He might not be interested in his home country's rich musical heritage, but The Flying Club Cup proves he's more than capable of creating a legacy of his own.

It's obvious Condon has taken great care to preserve the sound of the studio with his production, but despite the careful layers and smart arrangements, subtle human fingerprints abound. From the sound of his hand scraping the body of his ukulele in “The Penalty” to the sound of accordion keys being pushed on “Cliquot,” it's an album that can sound both uncomfortably intimate and massively enveloping with its wall-of-sound arrangements. As such, high-end equipment will be helpful - if not entirely necessary - in picking apart the various layers in the production and cutting through the relatively lo-fi production to reveal the sonic peaks and valleys.

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