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Beirut Brings International Influence to Lush Indie Pop

Observer Scene | Thursday, March 20, 2008

At the age of only 19, Zach Condon, a.k.a. “Beirut”, crafted one of the most precocious debut records of any American artist in recent memory. Defined by Eastern European and Balkan influences, the album “Gulag Orkestar” weaves a decidedly mature tale of hope, loss and the constant renewal of life as is found when one appreciates the dueling roles of new influences amidst the permanence of memory.

Considered part of the indie scene, Beirut has flown under the radar of many casual indie fans. His rich and emotive voice carries most of the songs, with various instruments including the ukulele and the trumpet augmenting the many textures and feelings that he brings to each tune.

A minor problem with the record is the fact that it is written with such heartfelt enthusiasm for the lives and experiences of those in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Russia. It’s a sound technique and Condon succeeds in conveying a sense of the experience faced by those whose stories color his songs. But, since he grew up in the western United States and spent most of his time making the record in Western Europe, it is unlikely that many of the stories he tells are so much from lived experiences as they are from meticulous and thorough research on his subjects. The songs are not particularly bad or suffer from lack of actual influential experience, but they seem to stretch a bit too far at some points.

One of the major triumphs of the album is “Postcards From Italy.” Quite similar at points to the vocal fluctuations and flows of Rufus Wainwright, it is a fully developed tune of life, love and death. Beirut sings: “The times we had / Oh, when the wind would blow with rain and snow / Were not all bad / We put our feet just where they had, had to go / Never to go.” With vocals laced amidst a concord of horns, drums and the ever-present ukulele, the track creates a subtly stunning portrait of the expectations that lovers invest in their loves, all to watch them fall, still ever-hoping for the love to rise again in a yet to be seen day.

One of Beirut’s most obvious strengths is his ability to write lyrics that are not overly involved and sprawling. Unlike many indie artists who construct songs that rely on vast stories weaved within each individual track, Condon allows the words equal footing with the music. Yet he also manages the balance the two elements of words and music so they support each other as individual yet superbly integrated elements of each track. This effect is best seen on tracks like “The Canals of Our City,” “Mount Wroclai” and “Postcards From Italy.” Indeed, his astute and measured use of each element of the song allows for the best songs to stand out as absolute gems while letting the more average ones still achieve their own power and effect in a manner that is usually only seen in the best songs on other artists’ records.

The track “Scenic World” offers perhaps the most prettily pop sound on the record. Amidst the onset of horns and layered vocals, Condon sings: “I try to imagine a careless life / A scenic world where the sunsets are all breathtaking.” It’s a beautiful moment on a wholly beautiful record from a young man who is fast becoming one of the most magical and affecting artists making music today.