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Gulag Orkestar

Gulag Orkestar


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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