Album Review: Beirut – March of the Zapotec/Holland

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If ever you want to feel bad about yourself, put on a Beirut album. The band is the brainchild of Zach Condon, an almost 23 year-old, Santa Fe multi-instrumentalist whose solo songs went from a MySpace page to the blogosphere, resulting in 2006’s critical darling, Gulag Orkestar, and a full-fledged band. He was 20 when he released the LP, which contained some of the year’s best songs and, I dare say, some of the best songs of the 2000s.

Now, just two years past drinking age, he’s releasing his fourth studio effort, March of the Zapotec/Holland, a double-EP that’s attributed to Beirut and RealPeople, respectively. The first EP is your typical Beirut fare, except it has more Mexican influence due to Condon’s visit to Oaxaca, where the set was recorded. The latter EP is credited to a pseudonym Condon used before donning the Beirut moniker, and it leans towards his dancier tendencies. Though, his definition of dance is more of the Casiotone for the Painfully Alone variety than LCD Soundsystem.

March of the Zapotec sounds like most of the Beirut songs you heard from the previous LPs and EP, except a distinctly Mexican flavor appears every now and then to remind you that this is a new release. If it weren’t for the subtle mariachi flair that pops up in “La Llorona”, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear the track on his debut. What’s most interesting about his incorporation of Mexican sounds is that his Balkan sound is so steeped in acoustic strings and trumpets, you wouldn’t think a few extra horns would make much difference. Yet, listen to “The Akara” and you’ll see how the quiet strum of a ukulele rubs up against a longing trumpet in an unassuming but endearing way. It’s not hard to imagine the band sitting in the Mexico sun, letting the songs evolve from their nascent states into something solid.

As much fun as Zapotec is, the synths of Holland are where the heart of this set is. Make no mistake, the songs still aren’t radical departures from the Beirut catalogue, but they feel looser than anything I’ve heard since the demos that floated around online when Beirut was just Condon and he wasn’t yet signed to a label. Listen to “No Dice”, the EP’s instrumental retro closer that finds Condon channeling his inner Depeche Mode circa Speak & Spell, and you’ll hear perhaps the only number he’s written that can qualify as a dance track. As it evaporates to a close, it leaves you feeling like the dance can keep going, whereas the band’s previous album closers have been grander finales that bring down the curtain and turn the lights out.

On Gulag Orkestar, “Postcards From Italy” was the obvious attention-grabber, but “Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)” and “Prenzlauerberg” were equally strong tracks for they proved Condon’s deceptively deep voice-really, when you see him, you don’t expect such rich vocals to flow from that body-can convey nuance and vulnerability amidst loud arrangements that threaten to drown him out. That same balance is found on “My Night With a Prostitute From Marseille”, where Condon croons, “And now outside I see your eyes meet sky / and I won’t lie, I kept you here tonight.” Almost unheard lurking beneath the chorus is Condon’s voice pitch-shifted into a demonic bass, proving that he’s not afraid to layer his songs until you can’t separate any one element from the others. It’s an interesting collage for such a lo-fi album, but it works.

What could have been a gimmicky concept -say, the indie I Am…Sasha Fierce-is ultimately an intelligently arranged set of EPs that showcase Condon’s diversity. I don’t know that I or many people will think of the album as two distinct halves in the future, especially in the era of iPods, but March of the Zapotec/Holland will be the release where Condon proved he’s not coasting on a working formula. Although both EPs are pure Beirut from start to finish, it’s the album the band never needed to release for fear of alienating fans of the organic Balkan sound. Yet, I’m very glad they did.

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