March of the Zapotec and Holland

Darlings of the music blogosphere Beirut officially released their latest record yesterday, bearing the snappy moniker ‘March of the Zapotec and Realpeople Holland’ (at least, that’s what iTunes tells me – such a caveat seems necessary when quoting from something which apparently classes Le Tigre, Bjork, and Stereolab as Blues). Something of a musical diptych, the album is split into 6 tracks conceived during Zach Condon’s trip to Mexico, where he enlisted the collaboration of a 17-piece Mexican funeral band, and 5 electronica tracks culled as the choicest of his bedroom noodlings. The overall effect could euphemistically be described as subtle, which is to say that fans who found themselves choked by the breath-catching melodies and blissfully ensconced in the tonal layerings of ‘Postcards From Italy’ or ‘Sunday Smile’ will be left with the feeling of having witnessed the musical equivalent of a Benjamin Button. In fact, only one of the songs from this EP was written in the pre-Beirut days, but the album has the feeling of a talented composer sparking around with motifs and ideas without yet being able to ignite them into any strikingly meaningful arrangement. This is a record that fizzles more than flames; even the Europoppier numbers have all the emotional clout of the final credits of a SNES adventure.

If this record were being scrutinised on another day of the week, attention might be drawn to the recurring theme of prostitutes and wives in a disappointingly telling nod to the stifling dichotomies present on the record at every level of its conception: electronica vs.brass, syncopated folk rhythms vs. straightforward dance beats, voice vs. Instruments. Lines such as ‘and once her eyes filled with flies’ reveal more than a passing debt to Neutral Milk Hotel, who also perfected the art of ‘sonic tourism’ (i.e. stealing the authentic sound of Balkan brass and rendering it acceptable to the Western market by filtering it through an American indie lens) back when Zach Condon was still reading Marimba For Dummies. Condon’s half-spat morose baritone, too, has less of a whiff and more of a full-on nasal onslaught of Jeff Mangum – which was forgivable when Beirut were crafting such achingly lush alt-folk pop with the tools magpied from Neutral Milk Hotel, along with Magnetic Fields and ethnic folk. Now, however, I find myself doing verbal gymnastics of Olypmian proportions simply to get through this review using a kinder word than ‘derivative’.

What conspires against this record may be a combination of too much clarity and not enough purpose; the production largely brings Condon’s voice into the foreground, meaning he has had to formulate intelligible syllables instead of that river-thick, muddied slurring that gave the vocals on ‘Postcards From Italy’ their swamp-like charm. The circumstances of the record, though, don’t allow for this energy to be focussed effectively enough (the first 6 tracks were destined to form a soundtrack to a movie that never happened; the other 5 were private explorations that were apparently done to ‘cleanse the palette’ after a hard day’s recording with Beirut; imagine Virginia Woolf winding down with The Sun crossword). The result is a record full of brass promises jingling nicely enough but leading nowhere in particular; trumpets that were sure they had a point. Highlights include the cautiously-measured ‘La Llorona’ and the ‘Scenic World’-esque ‘My Wife, Lost in the World’, which carries some of the sustained mournful swellings so characteristic of ‘Gulag Orkestar’, as well as what feel like the beginnings of an uncanny knack for cadence. Evolution is truly a beautiful thing, but in this case, it feels like we already witnessed the apotheosis and are now firmly in the territory of a retrospective ‘Making-Of’.

Don’t take my word for it – buy the record here.

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Filed under Tapes on Tuesday

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