Possibly one of the more unlikely developments on the indie scene is the growing popularity of Beirut, a band whose musical influences consist chiefly of Parisian and Balkan folk music.
With its sophomore release, “The Flying Club Cup,” the band has brought a fresh twist to the gypsy-folk stylings of its previous efforts and has ultimately proven its staying power.
p. For those of you unfamiliar with Beirut, the band consists of 21-year-old singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Zach Condon and a sizeable handful of studio musicians. The band has garnered most of its modest fame through a combination of whimsical live shows and the devotion of internet bloggers across the nation, only receiving record-label attention when Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeremy Barnes brought the early recordings to New Jersey-based Ba Da Bing! Records.
p. The idea of folk-infused music on a popular front is anything but new — musical acts ranging from Bob Dylan to The Decemberists have already explored such territory. But, Beirut is the first band of its kind to hit the streets. Even the name of the band evokes a much earthier, more natural impression than one would expect from the indie scene. Yet, despite its name, Beirut not plagued by the same run-of-the-mill, unrefined production quality that’s come to define the genre. Beirut’s sound can best be defined as something picked right from the streets in southern France, and owes much of its artistic direction to Condon’s travels as a street musician across Europe.
p. Upon returning from his travels, at the ripe age of 19, the Albuquerque, N.M. native set to work on the songs that would become the foundation of his early musical acts. The use of the word “band” at this point is liberal at best, as Condon recorded most of “Gulag Orkestar,” Beirut’s debut LP, by himself in his Santa Fe, N.M. home, playing accordian, keyboards, saxophone, clarinet, mandolin, ukelele, horns, glockenspiel and percussion alongside his own vocals.
p. Though “Gulag Orkestar” and the subsequent EP “Lon Gisland” were achievements in themselves, the release of “The Flying Club Cup” demonstrates the work of a more mature person. Condon has settled comfortably into the nuances of his own songwriting.
p. His orchestral arrangements, a bit weighty and overdrawn on “Gulag,” now take on a much more refined quality, as evidenced in “A Call to Arms” and “La Banlieue.” The album as a whole feels more consistent and natural; each song flows easily into the next without the sluggish, deliberate instrumental breaks of previous releases. And Condon’s voice in songs like “Nantes” and “Cherbourg” bears a detached, sea-chanty charm that fits right into the mix of strings, ukeleles and horns.
p. While the album makes an impression the first time through, it certainly rewards repeated listening. At times, the orchestral tapestry feels reminiscent of the similarly folk-influenced works of composers Ravel and Bartok, as in the chromatic opening of “Forks and Knives (La Fete)” or the seductive quality of the violin/trumpet melody at the end of “Cliquot.”
p. The emphasis of the folk element, while strong, in no way detracts from the unique quality of Condon’s creative voice. It seems that he has already mastered the style, for though his songs sound as if they could be heard at the court of an Italian or French wedding — tracks like “The Flying Club Cup” or “Sunday Smile” — they are straight from and embodied by Condon.
p. Given the amount of improvement between the band’s first and second releases, both in terms of production quality and the music itself, we can only hope for a still stronger release in the near future.