Impressing the unknowing will always remain the ultimate objective of the perfectly compiled mix tape, and in 2006 there was no better track than Beirut’s “Postcards from Italy” to call upon to play the role of instant curiosity peaker. All melancholy ukulele, rolling rum pum pum snare drum, blaring brass, and Zach Condon’s stirring vocals, the song is easily the signature track from Beirut’s Gulag Orkestar; though that hardly means the entire body of work suffered.
For Gulag’s full-length follow-up, the twenty-one year old once again traverses the old world, this time taking queues from the cobblestone streets and corner cafes of the City of Lights. And while the results of his inspirations are certainly a little less gypsy, The Flying Club Cup (Ba Da Bing) still aims for indie exotica all the way. Opener “Nantes” is a carousel of rattling drums, drunken Tuba, and lovesick accordion…call it a whirl-go-round that packs a potent Parisian punch. “In the Mausoleum” serves up a groovy, caf au late kind of kick…a real piano swinger that hints at Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy theme from The Peanuts or Illinoise era Sufjan Stevens depending on how you hear it. Then there is the classic coursework in Beirut 101 that is “The Penalty”. Evoking obvious similarities, the ukulele laden track plays like the heir to “Postcards”, so get those mixed tapes ready. And rhythmic delight “Guyamas Sonora”, with a full-bodied armada of percussion backing a flurry of strings and horns, provides one the more memorable moments on the album.
Perhaps the most profound difference between old and new comes from the stoic, headstrong vocals that fly to the front of almost every song on this collection. Toeing the same line as Rufus Wainwright (to mixed results, depending on your tolerance for such a thing), “Forks and Knives (La Fete)” is the most theatric track Beirut has ever penned. And on the stripped down soliloquy “Un Dermier Verre (Pour La Route)”, Condon pairs a newfound, vocal robustness with elegant, yet simplistic, classical chords of piano. Whether such a decisive emphasis on voice is a deliberate stamp of ownership on a more collective effort (Gulag was very much a solo effort), or the documentation of a real troubadour coming of age remains to be seen. But a highlight like “A Sunday Smile”, which romantically waltzes along to rich layers of melody, suggests kid Condon no longer derives his kicks from semester abroad soundscapes alone. – David Pitz