Gulag Orkestar


    Despite the effusive praised heaped upon them by some very smart folks in the blogosphere, the mopey soundscapes of Gulag Orkestar
    remained beyond my ken for the longest time, and I wasn’t sure why.
    Then I remembered a phrase that someone from the Beirut camp used to
    describe it: “Magnetic Fields Balkan pop.” Superficially, that’s apt:
    Beirut’s Zach Condon shares Stephin Merritt‘s trapped-in-a-studio-apartment-cum-recording-studio-with-only-his-instruments-to-keep-him-company
    aesthetic, and his rhythmic tastes tend toward the Eastern European.
    But this is in no way a pop album — I can’t stress
    that enough — and any attempts to approach it as such will leave you
    as baffled as I was. (For the record, here’s the phrase I would have
    used to describe it: “Eugene Hutz, hooked on downers, following a
    massive stroke.” Not bad, eh? Dear any PR higher-ups reading this:
    Consider that my job application.)



    Beirut is being hyped pretty hard, and since that hype tends to have a
    trickle-down effect on a nation of millions of bloggers and rock
    writers, I felt it would be instructive to cite that “Magnetic Fields
    Balkan pop” quote: That way, if you ever see it in a review, you’ll
    know where it came from. (You’re welcome.) And like I already
    mentioned, it’s an inaccurate description anyway, since Condon seems
    uninterested in writing pop songs, per se. Gulag Orkestar‘s
    eleven tracks plod linearly along, eschewing pop’s dynamic song
    structures and immediate pleasures that make you want to move and dance
    around and clap your hands say yeah.
    Instead, Condon’s songs only occasionally settle on melodies, and
    almost never deign to unveil a verse or chorus. In that sense, Beirut
    reminds me of Sigur Ros — only whereas I find Sigur Ros‘s
    guitar farts and keyboard textures maddeningly boring, Beirut’s
    mournful horn riffs, driving piano, sprightly ukulele, dense percussion
    and occasional synth loops proved haunting and entrancing at best,
    flat-out morose at worst, and benignly pretty the rest of the time. (Oh
    yeah, the Beirut camp wants you to know that there are “no guitars on
    this album!” Duly noted, duly noted.)


    I’m no fan of moroseness in art, but I’ve been known to make exceptions when the artist has something to say (what up, Morrissey!).
    Condon doesn’t — he’s got a bad case of Early-Stipe Mumble Disease,
    rendering his lyrics mostly incomprehensible. (Plus — unaccountable
    personal preference alert! — his voice kinda irks me.) Yet I don’t
    find this as off-putting as I should, because Beirut’s music is often
    so beautiful. In short, Condon’s an unabashed aesthete, and a young one
    too, just 20 years old. I wouldn’t be surprised if his music muse ran
    out in the next couple years and he invested his artistic passions in
    gardening or synchronized swimming or some other medium in which he
    could be similarly pretty without a purpose. But for now he’s a
    musician, the music he makes is fairly lovely, and his inscrutable
    vocals are there more for texture than meaning. Because this isn’t pop
    music, remember? No matter what Condon’s handlers want you to believe.


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    Beirut’s Web site

    Ba Da Bing!’s Web site

    “Postcards from Italy” MP3

    “Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)” MP3

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