Sunday, August 7, 2011
Beirut - The Rip Tide
01 A Candle's Fire
02 Santa Fe
03 East Harlem
05 Payne's Bay
06 The Rip Tide
08 The Peacock
09 Port of Call
Zach Condon's been wonderfully stuck in the past since 2006, when he first arrived on the scene armed with a ukulele and dreams of old Europe-- in 2011, though, he and his art suddenly seem especially out of place. In the five years since Gulag Orkestar became a surprise success, the dialog surrounding indie culture has drastically shifted away from flesh-and-blood odysseys like Condon's and toward synth textures and vague electronic sighs. (Arguably, Condon and the current crop of emotionally distanced indie stars share nostalgia for experiences not necessarily known first-hand, but that's another conversation.) What's more, many of his peers are in drastically different places, both aesthetically and commercially, since Beirut's last full-length, 2007's excellent The Flying Club Cup. The National and Arcade Fire have successfully settled into the arena-rocking stage of their respective careers, while Owen Pallett and Sufjan Stevens have embraced idiosyncratic conceptual weirdness-- Stevens especially: Just last week, the pair of Brooklyn shows closing his extraordinary tour behind last year's glitchy, restorative LP The Age of Adz were a complete cosmic blowout, embracing an Etsy-gone-neon ethos and electronic expansiveness alike.
Back in 2009, it seemed like Zach Condon was considering a similar synthetic transformation. The back half of Beirut's mini-LP released that year credited to his Realpeople alias, March of the Zapotec/Holland, suggested a move away from his baroque stylings and toward homespun electronic pop in the vein of the Magnetic Fields circa The House of Tomorrow. Apparently, the experiments were just that, as those sounds are nowhere to be found on Beirut's third proper full-length, The Rip Tide. Instead, the project has turned inward, ditching the frilly drama of The Flying Club Cup for more plaintive, understated arrangements. Condon told The New York Times earlier this year that the relatively stripped-down approach was a response to his feeling like "a dilettante with instruments. For years I was picking up new instruments once a month, and for this I was trying to focus a little more, stick with piano, ukulele and trumpet." You're still going to find a pump organ part or two on this record, but otherwise, The Rip Tide's reliance on the Basic Beirut Food Groups (piano, horns, strings) keep Condon true to his word.
Leading up to The Rip Tide's release, Condon also hinted at the album's "sunny" disposition. I'm not sure if I'm hearing that. The Rip Tide was recorded in upstate New York two winters ago, and although there's a handful of upbeat cuts (notably, the infinite earworm and LP highlight "Santa Fe"), a good part of the album sounds especially soft and melancholy, a possible result of the fact that the winter of 2010 was especially snowy and brutal for the greater New York area. If you prefer Condon's balladeer side, then, this isn't a bad thing at all, especially if you are drawn to his richest, most melodrama-dripping highlights ("The Penalty", "After the Curtain"). Arrangement-wise, The Rip Tide is slightly more complicated than those past glories, with a few moments ("Payne's Bay", the swelling title track) that, at times, recall the wooden psychedelic weirdness of Grizzly Bear. Things never get too strange, though: This is still a Beirut album, so declarative horns and impassioned strumming are frequent visitors.
There's a newfound sense of restraint and stateliness on display here, and it's impressive that within five years and at such a young age, Condon's developed so quickly as an arranger and songwriter. Watching him ease into adulthood (he was 19 when Gulag Orkestar dropped) means we've been able to track the maturation of that rich, golden voice he possesses; On The Rip Tide, it occasionally sounds huskier and, in the case of his slight trembles of "Santa Fe" and "Goshen", a little more unstable. These little cracks in the drywall actually make him seem more human; his voice has always seemed almost too sonorous and perfectly dusty to be real, and hearing him falter (if ever so slightly) is a positive reminder that, not too long ago, this was a kid who, as he told the NYT, "just want[ed] to swig whiskey and drink beer and go onstage and have a ball." Still, he's a commanding presence, as his powerful pipes swing to and fro on the robust album bookends "A Candle's Fire" and "Port of Call". Vocally, The Zach Condon Show is nowhere near cancellation, to a point where the usually distinctive contributing vocals of slow-burning singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten (who pitches in on "A Candle's Fire" and "Payne's Bay") are smothered and unnoticeable.
Despite Condon's clear development, The Rip Tide is a defiantly small effort-- the shortest LP in Beirut's catalog (nine songs, clocking in at just over 33 minutes), self-released on Condon's own label, Pompeii. As such, it's a record that's easier to slip by unnoticed than Beirut's two other LPs. (The lack of the previously present heavy affectation contributes to this as well.) However, our own Marc Hogan put it best in his recent Playlist item on "East Harlem"-- you get as much out of Condon's creations as you put time into them, and familiarity eventually becomes its own reward. Near the end of the album's beautifully mournful, penultimate cut "The Peacock", Condon repeats this telling admission into the face of fading horns: "He's the only one who knows the words." His antiquated fantasies still very much belong to him, but it's still a joy to peer inside them-- even if the canvases they're displayed on have shrunk ever so slightly...www.pitchfork.com