By Matt Yau
If you haven’t heard Beirut before – you’ll know if you have or not – prepare to be entranced. Go and buy their debut album The Gulag Orkestar and their subsequent albums. But just to get you started, Zach Condon is the cultured character behind the band.
The influences of the band have an explicit link to his background where he grew up playing trumpet in a jazz band; a sound that features in many tracks. Mount Wroclai (Idle Days) from the debut album has a beautifully crafted array of blissful brass. I could babble on about the debut album all day – which many fans still consider their best – but you’ll have to treat yourselves with hours of Balkan harmony.
This leads me to Zach’s next major influence – and the sound that defines Beirut the most – where he discovered the charms of Balkan folk while travelling Europe when he was only 17. Its origins come from the Ottoman Empire where ethnic groups from various European countries came together to create music that is genuinely distinct from other European sounds. Essentially, the sound can be traced back to the ethnic minority of Romani where soulful, evocative vocals are prevalent. Without being derogatory, it is the sound of nomadic gypsies and Beirut fans around the world are grateful that Zach has taken such a warm deliberation to a resonance that echoes and hums.
With such obvious world music influences and five years after the inception of their debut album, you might wonder how Beirut are going to keep their sound fresh. In their attempts to do so, somewhere within the production process, that distinctly Beirut sound has been tempered. The complex composition and melodies of old has now become simplified; critics may even say commercialised. Make no mistake though; the basic ingredients of piano, horns and strings still remain along with Zach’s softened voice. To simplify does not necessarily to commercialise. When you’re a musical prodigy proficient with various instruments, it is a wise decision to focus on the sounds that define Beirut.
The album, The Rip Tide, begins with a soothing accordion before trumpets and flugelhorns erupt into a fanfare. A ukulele backs the lyrics which are vague with no real meaning: ‘Just don’t forget a candle’s fire, is only just flame’. However, while it’s difficult to grasp any definite meaning from the words, some would argue that they simply have varying interpretations for different people.
Although there is still that familiar Beirut sound of brass, the piano certainly features more than it did in previous albums; the melancholic Goshen has a slow, but purposeful piano backing. It combines with Zach’s emotional vocals for nearly half the track before the brass and drums add emphasis to the melancholy. It’s a very raw song with minimal post-production and that adds to the heart-breaking tone all the more. Vagabond also features a prominent piano sound and this emphasis on brass and piano – or lack of guitars – can certainly be attributed to Zach’s growing problems with his wrist injury.
Santa Fe, the beloved birthplace of Zach Condon, offers up a happier tone to the album. Its staccato sound is a rare one within Zach’s well-embellished repertoire of material. However, blaring legato trumpets tend to feature in most Beirut tunes and it proves true here as they break up the verses and chorus. From Santa Fe in New Mexico to East Harlem in New York City, Beirut provides a track that is reminiscent of their early albums and its distinct Balkan sound. The lyrics resemble something from early 20th century imagery poets you’ll find yourself briefly drifting into Beirut’s incomprehensible world, even if it’s just to gaze and wonder at the splendour of it all.
The Rip Tide is beautifully symbolic of the sea and the tranquillity that goes with it. A serene piano opening entices listeners before Zach’s signature flugelhorn adds to the idyllic sound that so often defines Beirut. Although fans will still recognise the distinctive horns, The Rip Tide is one of the few tunes that is well distanced from Beirut’s Balkan roots. The horns don’t boom and bounce, instead, they roll and wallow in a manner that can only suggest Zach understanding of composition is maturing. After a climatic crash of instrumentals, brass and piano sign off together in a melancholic surrender to the rip tide.
If you’re expecting the album to still have that heavily Balkan-influenced sound, you won’t be getting much here. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing because composition appears to be more carefully considered as a result. Certainly for listeners who haven’t quite found their taste for Beirut, their best opportunity thus far is with The Rip Tide where experimentation has been curtailed along with Zach’s baritone voice too. The loyal Beirut fans shouldn’t be disappointed either, you will still recognise the sound that we’ve all come to love and embrace.
It may not have the captivating, complex melodies of Postcards from Italy, Elephant Gun or Nantes but that warm, soothing sound will still wrap around you. If you are new to Beirut, this is a rip tide worth getting trapped in.