On the equally astounding Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup, Zach Condon’s cultural appropriation of Eastern European and French chanson music laughed in the faces of snooty traditionalists. And Condon is still doing it. After the 20-year-old Santa Fe native made a name for himself as the artist with a crush on Europe, now at 23, Condon is moving on to Mexican funeral marches. The precocious cultural sponge booked a flight to the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, and started recording some new tracks with a local 19-piece Jimenez Band. Helped by a translator, the Beirut frontman’s efforts have produced the wonderfully melancholic March of the Zapotec. The six songs were composed entirely in the tiny weaver village of Teotitlan del Valle during the spring of 2008.
The lithe EP starts with the band in full swing. "El Zócalo," named after the main square in Mexico City, finds the Jimenez Band quickly entering the song’s 29-second frame before being whisked away through a studio pan. It sounds utterly appropriate to the spirited (and possibly spirits-filled music). It’s as natural as a band of street musicians slogging to the next street corner. The five tracks remaining follow the precedent set by "El Zócalo." Condon’s "emulations" here seem like natural apercus, with all the familiarity of a well-worn local haunt.
The beautiful three-step of "La Llorna" still retains the impressive Balkan sway of Beirut, as Condon takes vocal cues from Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg. "My Wife" wafts in with trumpet blasts before settling into an amazing drunken waltz. The hallmark of this track and its more sullen companion ("The Shrew") is the volatility of the group assembled. They’re all somehow reigned in by Condon’s meandering vocalizations. He runs through a broken marriage in few lyrics on the despondent melody of "The Akara" but his loping delivery adds to their impact: "So long, mistress sings/ So long, my fate has changed/ It’s been deranged." Ukulele and descending trumpets bolster Condon’s morose lyrics like a beery brother-in-arms.
Where the Beirut -titled first half of this two-sided EP wonderfully toes the line between drunken revelry and artistic craftsmanship, Realpeople’s Holland is calculated and colorful synth-pop. These Magnetic Fields-like bedroom recordings, under Condon’s former moniker Realpeople, are polished bits of electronica. Condon’s vocal tinkering adds to their shelf life. Like his former tourmate and collaborator, Alaska in Winter’s Brandon Bethancourt, these five songs are romantic but have strange things bubbling under the surface. For instance, on the lyrically adroit "My Night With the Prostitute From Marseille," Condon’s voice is pitch-shifted to sound like a less spooky Knife track about tainted love. Likewise, the Boards of Canada intro to "Venice" is awash in mid-day sun and "The Concubine" is perfectly suited for the Amélie soundtrack, with its accordion and toy piano counterpoints. The almost German house music closer "No Dice" ends the EP nicely.
March of the Zapotec and Holland ‘s virtues reveal themselves slowly, but once they come to the surface they effervesce continuously. The fact Condon spends as much time looking backward as much as he does forward is a testament to his young, curious talent. He’s shown himself as not a mere appropriator but an artist with a voracious appetite for the musical landscape around us all. Beirut’s next pan-global exploration can’t come soon enough.