It’s surprising that Beirut bandleader Zach Condon has become the critical darling he is. The story goes that he dropped out of New Mexico’s Santa Fe High School aged just 17, travelled round Europe soaking up various strands of continental folk, before releasing his striking Balkan-themed debut as Beirut, ‘Gulag Orkestar’, in 2006. On paper, Condon’s about the most irritatingly precocious gap year smartarse imaginable. He even plays the ukelele for chrissakes.
Yet he’s largely been spared accusations of pretension and cultural appropriation. Perhaps it’s through association with hip collaborators like Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeremy Barnes and Arcade Fire compatriot Owen Pallett, or the fact that, simply, he’s not Gogol Bordello. More likely though, it’s that ‘Gulag Orkestar’ and it’s dazzling francophile follow-up ‘The Flying Club Cup’ are about the most authentic, triumphant tributes to the canon of European folk you’ll hear coming from Condon’s side of the Atlantic.
It’s a shame then, that this past pizzazz is so absent from ‘No No No’, the first Beirut album in four years. While 2011’s ‘The Rip Tide’ was certainly more pared down in comparison to its orchestral predecessors, here Condon (who went through a divorce and hospital treatment for exhaustion before making this new record) seems to have stripped away his most intriguing tropes altogether. The corny staccato keys of ‘August Holland’ merely churn on like a Ben Folds Five cast-off and Condon moans aimlessly over ‘Pacheco’’s gooey synth schmaltz in search of a chorus, never quite finding the hooks to base one on.
The record peaks with its first two songs: ‘Gibraltar’ conceals remarkable catchiness in it’s simple, bittersweet piano groove, and the title track is the piece of pristine Gallic pop that Condon’s been promising for years. From there though, only the gorgeous brass embellishments and faint sense of longing heard on ‘At Once’, and the cinematic shifts and dramatic beauty of instrumental centrepiece ‘As Needed’ are worth sticking around for. The rest is Condon shirking off the grandeur of his earlier arrangements with his simplest songs yet, but without showing he’s got the songwriting chops to move on.
- Director: Zach Condon
- Record label: 4AD
- Release date: 11 Sep, 2015