Last year, Zach Condon politely introduced himself to the world as Beirut. But the shambling gypsy ballads on his debut, Gulag Orkestar, sounded like some recording discovered in a time capsule, freshly excavated from Eastern European soil. That is, they absolutely did not sound like they could have sprung fully formed from the mind of a nineteen-year-old home-recording prodigy in New Mexico. Even less likely, though, was that all the mournful trumpet, accordion vamping, and old-world crooning resonated with a contemporary indie-rock audience. But as “Postcards from Italy,” “Scenic World,” and “The Canals of Our City” proved, beautiful songwriting translates far beyond the boundaries one might expect to contain it — whether age, culture, or era.
Although Condon quickly expanded the band to eight, as documented on the Lon Gisland EP from earlier this year, the reconfiguration hardly altered either his vision or his sound. In fact, there was little on that EP to illustrate the seismic shift from bedroom auteur to full-blown band. And although listening to his second full-length, The Flying Club Cup, does show some signs of reorientation, the direction has barely wavered. On a cosmetic level, Condon seems to have headed due west to France for the album’s inspiration, naming songs after Nantes and Cherbourg. The occasional snippet of French film dialogue and ubiquitous accordion go a long way to conjure the City of Lights, but the music never truly strays from the clearly delineated boundaries of Beirut. Songs still begin modestly enough — usually alternating between two chords on accordion or ukulele. Almost formulaically, clattering rhythms enter before the compositions blossom with lush and colorful horn arrangements.
Rather than a stylistic about-face, the improvements over Gulag Orkestar are incremental but nonetheless promising. Most important, Condon’s vocals are more confident and nuanced. On “The Penalty,” his timbre sounds its most natural, and his delivery its most effortless, conjuring the seductive affectation of early Scott Walker. Moreover, many songs — “Cherbourg,” “La Banlieu” — are more satisfyingly dramatic, due in large part to the addition of sweeping strings by Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallet. They swell into blasting crescendos and crest into well-timed restraint, perfectly supporting the peaks and valleys of Condon’s theatrical vocals.
If The Flying Club Cup sounds a little earth-bound at times, it has less to do with the quality of the songwriting than with listener expectations. It is a better album than its predecessor in almost every regard, but it hardly shows Condon taking risks. Instead, it sounds as if he’s merely refining the songwriting strategies he outlined on his debut. To produce a record so lovely is, without question, a victory, but wouldn’t it be more exhilarating to hear him conquer new territory?