The second installment of the Songwriter’s Corner takes a look at the work of Zach Condon, the brains behind New Mexico band Beirut. Since the project originated in 2006, they have been responsible for two incredible albums and a host of EPs, with the third album from the band due for release at some point of 2011. Beirut are among the first acts confirmed to be playing this year’s Electric Picnic festival in Stradbally in September.
The story of Zach Condon’s stumble into music is one that befits the work he has since released: whimsical, joyful and born out of wanderlust – Condon, quite simply, dropped out of school and absconded to Europe at the age of sixteen. A straight A student beforehand, he travelled throughout Europe in a drunken haze exposing himself to the folk music of the locals.
It was the folk music of the Balkans, in particular Boban Markovic Orkestar and Goran Bregovic, that influenced the sound of the debut work put out by Beirut, The Gulag Orkestar.
The album ebbs and flows in the vein of a traditional Balkan orchestra, mournful and morose in parts, joyful and uplifting in others. It is startling to realise that the entire album was put together by the youthful Condon on his own – such is the rich and full sound of the finished product. It is a forlorn ode to the lands of Europe, evident from the song titles along: Prenzlauerberg, Brandenberg (both references to Berlin), Postcards from Italy, The Canals of Our City (Italy), Bratislava (the picturesque Slovakian capital) and Rhineland.
Credit to Condon for retaining the authenticity of the folk sound – all too often a foreign interpretation of a localised genre can go wrong, though this is never the case on Gulag Orkestar. Accordions, ukuleles, flugelhorns and trumpets all bed in wonderfully together as he whimsically serenades the cities mentioned above. Postcards From Italy is a real stand-out moment from the album in which Condon tackles the breakdown of a relationship, yet lives in the hope that all is not lost – “And I will love to see that day, that day is mine / When she will marry me outside, with the willow trees / And play the songs we made…”
All the more impressive when you realise Condon’s tender age at the time of writing and recording. The album was released under the Beirut moniker just a few months after his twentieth birthday.
In the period post-Gulag Orkestar, Condon released three EPs: Lon Gisland, Pompeii and Elephant Gun. On these, Condon re-recorded old tracks (including some that pre-dated the full-length debut), and began to take steps into a new style: the French chanson. He covered a track by noted Belgian chanteur Jacques Brel and absorbed all that he could get his hands on.
Condon said, at the time, that it was the sense of unfamiliarity that attracted him to the genre: the classic pop songs, “shrouded in big, glorious, over-the-top arrangements” and seeped in melodrama. This is the sound that characterised the second full-length release from the band, The Flying Club Cup.
Each track on the album was designed to evoke a different city in France – though Guayamas, Sonora is a Mexican city. Some are obvious (Nantes, Cherbourg), others less so (The Penalty, Cliquot) The album was also adorned with a host of new instruments: french horns, violins, flutes, piano and even guitar. It also featured Owen Pallett as a collaborator.
Similar to the debut, the album is rather forlorn: on Nantes he sings that “It’s been a long time, since I’ve seen you smile.”, while Cliquot tackles more relationship trouble: “What melody will lead my lover from his bed? / What melody will see him in my arms again?”
Much more polished than the work that preceded it, The Flying Club Cup saw Condon step into new bounds and developed a more grounded, accomplished sound.
From here, however, things went very quiet on all things Beirut related. Extensive touring resulted in exhaustion and the band took a badly needed break. 2009 saw the release of their most recent work, the double EP March of the Zapotec / Holland. The latter is credited to Realpeople, Condon’s original pseudonym and electronic based project. The electronic tendencies are evident all over the EP, pushing the boundaries of Condon’s work in yet another wayward direction. Other tracks have a notable Mexican feel to them, while they reference other European cities: Venice and Marseille most notably.
Dominated by the classic confines of the French chanson, Zach Condon’s work has taken in varying styles in his limited discography. Balkan folk music, electronic currents, the chanson – this is a man who is not bound by one genre. Tackling wanderlust (names constantly reference exotic cities), romance and more, he is a unique songwriter obsessed with change, travel and challenging himself. I’m sure it is safe to say that his as-yet-untitled third album will see a step into a wholly new boundary when it does get released.
I seen Beirut a few years back when they supported Calexico in The Olympia. I thought the performance was amazing. However for some reason the album didn’t do much for me.
That’s interesting. I have never caught Beirut live and am really looking forward to rectifying that at the Electric Picnic this year but I have never been any less than amazed by the work Condon has recorded. For such a young man to have such broad, varied and intricate style is stunning.