Beirut: Gulag Orkestra (Ba Da Bing!)

beirut.jpgThis music outfit is the moniker of one Zach Condon of Brooklyn by way of Albuquerque. More to the point, it sports a strong foreign influence of Balkan gypsy music by way of Neutral Milk Hotel (in fact, Jeremy Barnes of NMH sits in on most of the tracks).

Truth be told, the foreign influence gig can be tough to pull off. Once you eliminate the sitars, the bagpipes, and Chinese zither music, there's precious little left that isn't already being used by Peter Gabriel. But Condon & Co, have managed to banish the guitar and stretch those atypical rock instruments with which we are already familiar -- ukulele, accordion, and mandolin -- into something that sounds like, well, Eastern Bloc Milk Hotel.

He's aping a heritage that no one from Albuquerque could possibly have and singing about towns and vignettes that no one from his background would know anything about. But if that kind of role-playing bothers you, then may I suggest you burn any of your Nick Cave albums or any compilations that might include songs about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. If you haven't figured it out yet, people, there's a bit of myth-making to the ol' Rock 'ndie Roll there, and Beirut is just another act trying to take advantage of audiences who are willing to temporarily suspend their disbelief.

Structurally, the song writing is about as complex as a box of Fruit Loops, but when did that stop you from buying a Guided by Voices album? And the lyrics are best never read, but that's assuming you can understand them. Condon sings like Rufus Wainright minus the Judy Garland but through such a fog that consonants and vowels are shadows and often indistinguishable. Which is a shame because the voice and music are timed perfectly to the beat of drunks swaying back and forth, their arms around each other, just singing the night away.

The one song where the lyrics are mostly audible, "Scenic World" is, oddly, the one with the least, if any real, Balkan character to it. There's some polka to it, but against that Casio beat, it's impossible to feel you're anywhere but the streets of New York, fresh, and 20 again. And what's not to love (and occasionally hate) about that? - John Flowers

Beirut - Gulag Orkestar


Mr. Flowers is a man with a few letters - from his work at Time Magazine to his very dedicated dedication to pursuing his literary pursuits on his very serious blog.