Beards, Blazers & Beirut: The Best Debut of 2006
2006 has not been a kind year for rookies. Whereas 2005 featured a spate of outstanding debuts (Clap Your Hands, Wolf Parade, Bloc Party, Go! Team), this year has been a mixed bag. From disappointing (Birdmonster, Annuals) to promising (Cold War Kids, Silversun Pickups) to straight-up very good (Voxtrot, Little Ones). Yet out of 2006's first-year class the only great first album has come from a kid from New Mexico who can neither shave nor legally drink alcohol. I'm talking about Beirut, or Zach Condon as the government knows him, who dropped his brilliant debut Gulag Orkestrar, earlier this year.
Blending pianos, accordians, mandolins, xylophones, melodicas and haunting, spectral trumpets, Gulag Orkestrar sounds like few albums ever made in America. Inspired by a trip he made to eastern Europe, Condon appropriated the gypsy sounds of Balkan Brass bands to create an album that makes you feel as though you should be listening to it while sipping tea in a Sarajevo cafe, overlooking a large body of water, watching accordian notes and cigarette smoke crash through the clean air.
But these sounds that conjure images of distant times and remote places seemed like they would be hard to translate to the Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood, 2006. Compounded with the fact that Condon's band had been reportedly underwhelming at their first NYC shows, I certainly wasn't expected to be blown away by the Beirut show. But I was. Though not at first. At first, I was stunned to see Condon leading a full-on nine-person miniature symphony, while looking more like a lost UCLA student than a guy about to rock the cooler-than-thou Troubadour crowd.
Beirut Live: Ain't Nothin' But a Gypsy Party....
But there he was, entrancing the crowd from moment one, with every trumpet blast seemeing alternately tragic and celebratory, set against the very solid drummer's hard clockwork percussion. Two violinists stood camped out in a corner of the stage floating mournful strings. In front, to the right of Condon, beat a tamborine player, shaking and writhing and keeping the mood buoyant. To the right of him was a mandolin and ukelele section, making it the first show I've ever seen with a mandolin and ukelele section.
And Condon of course led the loose and festive madness, with the world-weary and wonderful voice that he's been blessed with. A deep, extra-terrestrial baritone that seems to come from ancestral lands. If you'd closed your eyes you'd have pictured an ancient gypsy, with them open you see your kid brother who failed his Chemistry 101 final.
Each song that felt like muted black and white postcards on the album, seemed to explode with richness and color, fleshed out with the horns, woodwinds and strings. I haven't seen Devotchka or Gogol Bordello live, but other than that I can't imagine anyone else making music right now as uniquely sounding as Beirut's sad and beautiful noise. For a 20-year old to be able to sing and arrange such fully-formed songs is pretty startling. And from the excellence of his live show, Condon seems to just be getting started.
Actually Going to Beirut: Much Less Fun Than Going To a Beirut Concert
The set was an hour and ten minutes. Condon had told the crowd that normally the band didn't play an encore. On Saturday night they played two. During the final encore, Condon and his maniacal tambourine playing bandmate, stormed into the crowd, singing and blowing his trumpet in wailing pitch-perfect peals of sound.
During the course of the show, Beirut managed to play nearly every track off Gulag Orkestrar, as well as several from his new EP, Lon Gisland. Perhaps the highlight of the show, other than when Condon played "Postcards from Italy" and "Mt. Wroclai (Idle Days)," the two stand-out tracks from Gulag Orkestrar, came when he played his newest single, the recently Pitchfork lauded "Elephant Gun." While the song bears a resemblance to the tracks on his first album, it does point towards a continued growth for the Albuquerque native. If there's more stuff like this on the way, than Beirut will certainly be around for a very long time. Maybe even longer than the perpetually war-torn city.
Not many musicians can craft songs both uplifting and tragic, it seems as though you either get the pop sensibility and unadulterated fun of acts like the Go! Team or the maudlin moroseness of Sufjan Stevens. Despite his tender age, Condon seems to have a preternatural knack for doing both, at times even during the same song. At any age that's a rare thing. The band has just completed its first-ever US tour, save for a few dates in New Mexico. However, the next time they come through your city, go see this band, they're definitely worth checking for. The hype is for real.
If you haven't bought Gulag Orkestrar, you can purchase it here. It's highly recommended and seems a lock to make my list of the year's top releases. But before you do, sample these tracks.
Also check out Audio Deficit Disorder for pictures and more about the show.
As well as Rewriteable Content's also very excellent post.
Beirut: "Elephant Gun" (right-click, save as) from Lon Gisland EP
Beirut: "Mt. Wroclai (Idle Days)" (right-click, save as) from Gulag Orkestrar
Beirut: "Postcards from Italy" (right-click, save as) from Gulag Orkestrar