INTERSECTIONS: Music – How to Get Into Beirut

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By JARRED MIHALIK
Senior Writer

We’ve all heard the stories about the bold risk-takers who drop out of college to create something fantastic, usually earning billions along the way.  Zach Condon decided to go further, dropping out of Santa Fe High School at the age of 17 and then traveling to Europe with his older brother in a move that most people would consider chancy to say the least.  But as Condon sings on “Payne’s Bay” off his new album The Rip Tide , he has the tendency to be very headstrong.  After hearing his music, I would have to agree.  Condon has a created singular sound in his band Beirut by combining the gorgeous and foreign melodies of world music with his own gift for instrumentation.  Hit the jump to hear some songs that should convince you to enter Beirut’s “Scenic World.”

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Although he dabbled in home recordings on and off, Beirut’s first major release was his debut LP Gulag Orkestar (“Gulag” refers to the Soviet prison camps, while “Orkestar” is Slavic for orchestra).  It is still remarkable to me how convincingly  Zach Condon, a nineteen year old from New Mexico, was able to evoke the sounds of hazy Eastern European melodies and its wistfulness with stylized strumming in his songs.  I would argue that this is largely due to his musical expertise: in addition to the ukulele and flugelhorn, he can also play the mandolin, trumpet, accordion, and keyboard.  These “old-school” instruments provide a welcome contrast to the current trend in the indie music world towards electronic production.  Also, the amount of instruments present is evidence of what I believe to be Beirut’s greatest strength: his impeccable musicality.  If you’ve seen Shrek, you will understand that Beirut’s songs are like onions; they have layers upon layers.  Let’s start by listening to “Prenzlauerberg” off Gulag Orkestar.

The initial layer is the underlying accordion and tambourine, content to ebb back and forth gently.  The drums are yet another layer, keeping a peaceful beat in the background.  When Condon starts singing ten seconds into the piece, his voice is overdubbed into two separate layers: a more distinct one where the lyrics are discernible, and a gently yearning hum that colors the other voice layer.  These four layers intermix and mingle until 1:40, at which point a new layer enters: a strong trumpet voice that stands out from the other layers rather than being content to blend in.  Then at 2:26, Condon’s voice returns and the song truly becomes something amazing.  The layers are in a solemn dance, each content to play a distinct role that contributes to a song that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

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Listening to Beirut often reminds me of when I played in the San Diego Youth Symphony.  As a second violin, I generally disliked having to practice by myself.  Imagine having to listen to just the accordion part of “Prenzlauerberg” for the entire three and a half minutes.  But on Saturdays during group rehearsal, everything changed.  I got to play not only with the rest of the second violins, but with the entire orchestra.  The first violins, second violins, cellos, violas, basses, trumpets, French horns, trombones, tubas, flutes, clarinets and percussion all mixed into a complete form.  Listening to all the instruments play together was infinitely better than practicing by myself, and the culminating integration of the sounds made it all worth it.  I get the same heady rush from listening to Beirut when he manages to weave his instrumentation together.  Sometimes he is content to do it slowly, as in “Elephant Gun.”

The song opens with solo ukulele, joined twenty seconds later by his voice (which by the way, is an excellent voice, second only to Matt Berninger’s of The National in my book).  Another twelve seconds later and a chorus of accordions joins in, followed later by drums and cymbals.  But the layers are still not complete.  That only occurs at the minute and twenty second mark, when trumpets and horns enter with their brazen sound.  The rest of the song is an ecstatic mix of Beirut experimenting with his instrumentation and creating a song that makes me almost want to try out for a dance group on campus.

Even Beirut’s simpler songs are beautiful.  “A Sunday Smile” off Beirut’s French-influenced second album The Flying Club Cup consists almost entirely of a slow but optimistic keyboard and a chorus of voices that gradually builds up to become a song that has the power to create both melancholy and hope.

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Beirut’s third album, The Rip Tide, was released in 2011 and shows an artist who has come into full command of his music.  Whereas Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup are both albums that showcase Beirut’s take on world music, The Rip Tide is pure Beirut and painstakingly crafted.  The first single from the album, “Santa Fe,” is a bouncy hymn to Beirut’s hometown.  However, my favorite song off the album would be “East Harlem,” which immediately follows.  The steady beat, and eclectic mix of instruments all are classic Beirut.  However, the lyrics also take center stage here.  “East Harlem” is an ode to simpler times, when the distance that separated people could not be bridged by a quick phone call or instant message.  There is an almost unbearable sense of longing in present, and Beirut captures that feeling in this song perfectly.

Beirut’s instrumentation is a fantastic gift that shines through almost all of their songs.  If you enjoyed these selections, I encourage you to check out the rest of his material – you won’t be disappointed.  Leave me a message in the comments with any new favorites you find!

“Nantes” – La Blogotheque, A Take Away Show

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2 thoughts on “INTERSECTIONS: Music – How to Get Into Beirut

  1. I completely agree with your article. You descrbed Beirut’s music just perfectly. I have always liked Zach’s music and voice but to tell you the truth I became absolutely obsessed with them after watching the Red Hot Loft Show. His voice is totally amazing and unique. I started looking for similar bands but no other singer can compare to Zach Condon’s emotion in singing.
    Here goes the Red hot Loft Show:

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