Album Reviews

Beirut – Gulag Orkestar

(4AD) UK release date: 6 November 2006


If ProTools ever needed an advert for exactly why it, and software like it, has revolutionised the process of creating new music they need look no further than Gulag Orkestar, the debut album from 20-year-old Zach Condon, aka Beirut. In this UK edition the album comes backed with the Lon Glisland EP.

From the grief-stricken opening title track, a drunken swagger of a funeral march that suggests a wending through the Balkans on a wet Wednesday, to the playful strumming skip of Postcards From Italy and The Canals Of Our City, this is an album that finds its inspiration from gypsy and kletzmer cultures and one that is spiced with trumpet, accordion, strings, ukelele and a sense of shared human spirit. Yet despite nomenclature that calls to mind a battle-scarred Mediterranean capital and a title resonant of Stalin’s worst excesses, Gulag Orkestar was recorded principally in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Condon’s vocals call a drunk Rufus Wainwright staggering to mind.

The precocious Condon had already recorded two albums prior to this one – an electronica record purportedly in the manner of his hero Stephin Merritt‘s The Magnetic Fields, followed by a do-wop recording. At the age of 16 he left school and the States to tour Europe, embroiling himself in the sounds of Balkan gypsy music to such an extent that, although he sings in English, his words sound as otherworldly as the album’s instrumentation. So it is that here we find him blowing his trumpet lushly between croons, aided by Neutral Milk Hotel and A Hawk And A Hacksaw stalwarts Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost on percussion and strings.

Accordion-led tracks – Mount Wroclai especially – swagger along more like Yann Tiersen compositions with English lyrics, the 3/4 time signatures and glocks adding to the Amelie effect. Later, Bratislava is a highlight for appreciators of great big parping horns burbling and blasting at each other in addictive fashion, in stark contrast to the furtive, ukelele-led numbers.

What sounds like a live recording of an encore, After The Curtain, closes the main album. Like much of what went before it manages the unique trick of sounding devastated and paraletic and euphoric all at once, as hacked-about loops of what sounds like an organ being played from the bottom of a stein underpins claps, whoops and a chorus of crooning.

The EP is essentially more of the same. Elephant Gun plays like a companion piece to Postcards From Italy, but with a broader brush of instrumentation, and would make a fine single in its own right. My Family’s Role In The World Revolution is an instrumental shamble to piano, while The Long Island Sound develops trumpet-led phrases from the main record before fizzling into Carousels, in which Condon’s warbling baritone is allowed to float around flamboyant piano and horns.

It all feels part of the whole; a benchmark for an individual talent to better. If Condon can make an album as fully realised as this just out of his teens, there’s simply nothing to stop him achieving whatever else he sets his considerable mind to. As it is, he’s quietly unleashed what must surely stand as one of the year’s most astonishing albums.


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