Zach Condon is a tough guy to categorize. The Gulag Orkestra, his debut album with the band Beirut, was a hectic homage to Eastern Europe, inspired by a trip to the Balkans. His second album, The Flying Cup Club, was a love affair with French language and culture. On the new Beirut record –now streaming on NPR—the Euro influences are still there, but the presiding spirit is old-fashioned American pop.
On the first single off The Rip Tide, Condon borrows from “Spanish Harlem,” the classic recorded by more than 150 artists, including Ben E. King, Aretha Franklin, The Mamas and the Papas, Neil Diamond, Tom Jones, and (improbably) Led Zeppelin. His version changes the politically incorrect title to “East Harlem,” shifts the pace from languid to lilting, and makes a love song into a song of despair. The original rose bloomed. Condon’s flower wilts.
Beirut, East Harlem
Elsewhere, Condon seems inspired by Lennon and McCartney, with ponderous piano chords reminiscent of “Let it Be” and “Imagine” and Sgt. Pepper style horn lines. As a whole, The Rip Tide almost qualifies as easy listening, the kind of soft rock that might make Sufjan Stevens or Bon Iver blush. Condon has the slurry delivery of a crooner and his band plays only acoustic instruments: piano and ukulele, as well as strings, horns, and accordion. At various turns the sound evokes musical theater, a renaissance fair, a lounge act, a folk festival, a cocktail bar, and a 1970’s game show.
While it may lack testosterone, the album succeeds through a combination of crisp songwriting and lean arrangements. The Rip Tide rips through nine tunes in 34 minutes with tastefulness and restraint. Unlike previous Beirut records –and their Balkan brethren— the sound never collapses into cacophony or chaos. The horns and strings are garnishes, but the main dish is Condon’s voice –and the songs themselves.
If the music is restrained, the lyrics are straight-up minimalist. “Vagabond” has only one verse, which gets repeated. “East Harlem” has only one verse, repeated three times. “Another rose wilts/In East Harlem/Uptown downtown/A thousand miles between us/She is waiting/For the night to fall/Let it fall/I’ll never make it in time.” On the hymn-like ballad “The Peacock,” Condon repeats the sentence “He’s the only one who knows the words” eight times in a row. And on “Payne’s Bay,” he sings “Headstrong today/I’ve been headstrong” a dozen times. In each case, the effect is infectious.
Beirut, Payne’s Bay
As the title suggests, the main mood of The Rip Tide is melancholy. The lyrics –often addressed to a nameless you, presumably a lost lover—are shot through with loneliness, nostalgia, regret, sorrow, anomie, and rootlessness. But it’s not all gloom and doom. Condon often tempers the darkness of the lyrics with musical levity. The bouncy piano of “Vagabond” is a jaunty juxtaposition to the lyrics “I am lost and not found.” The second track, “Santa Fe,” an ode to Condon’s birthplace, is a pulsing singalong.
Beirut, Santa Fe
Overall, Condon has come a long way from the gangly 19-year-old I saw perform at Brooklyn’s North Six back in 2006. While he clearly has the chops (and the personnel) to make maximalist music, he now seems to have embraced the notion that less is more.
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist.