BEIRUT: THE FLYING CLUB CUP (2007)
1) A Call To Arms; 2) Nantes; 3) A Sunday Smile; 4) Guaymas Sonora; 5) La Banlieue; 6) Cliquot; 7) The Penalty; 8) Forks And Knives (La Fête); 9) In The Mausoleum; 10) Un Dernier Verre (Pour La Route); 11) Cherbourg; 12) St. Apollonia; 13) The Flying Club Cup.
One album and a few EPs into his career, «Beirut» goes west. Well, technically speaking, it is still east of New Mexico, but definitely west of the Balkans (where, as skeptical people tell me, Zachary Condon never actually set foot on his voyage of self-discovery): almost the whole album is based on the exotic country of France and its pictorially beautiful cities. The title is based on a suitably random bit of France-related trivia — a hot air balloon festival held in the early 1900's — and, totally true to the Santa Fe style, at least one song ('Guaymas, Sonora') deviates from the concept, being dedicated, mariachi-style, to Mexico, and the album cover, naturally, is an old photo shot of a Mexican beach. Putting a picture of a French paysage on an album paying tribute to French chanson? You'd call that true artistry? What are you, a Renaissance retrograde?...
And, of course, none of this sounds one bit like French chanson, despite all the accordeons and shit. Condon's travelog is well reflected in the lyrics, and his admiration for Jacques Brel, France's biggest cultural export asset of the century, is also on record; but at the end of the day, The Flying Club Cup still ends up sounding like... Beirut. Listen to 'Cliquot': they sound like they're using this brass-accordeon punch to reproduce the structure of some old Celtic ballad from the deep depths of Condon's American subconscience. Bizarre.
Musically, the album's greatest advantage may be the smooth, but exuberant strings arrangements, courtesy of Owen Pallett who is mostly known as the orchestral mastermind behind Arcade Fire, but is also an accomplished solo artist in his own right; his waltzing intro to 'Forks And Knives' is my personal favourite moment on the whole record. But overall, despite the announced transition from the Dionysian wildness of Serbia to the Apollonic refinery of France, the changes in style are mostly cosmetic. Sonic texture and atmosphere still preside over hooks; Condon's vulnerably romantic, several-feet-above-the-ground vocals still bring to mind a shallower, more naïve and innocent avatar of Andrew Bird; and the whole thing is still so damn cute and harmless that I do not understand how anyone could ever hate this kind of music (I think most of the hate letters in its address that I've seen were from silly people who actually expected it to sound like a collection of French pop tunes circa 1920 or something).
One thing that is a little annoying is that most of the songs are taken at the same tempo, and way too many of them ('A Sunday Smile', 'Cliquot', 'Forks And Knives', 'Cherbourg') are waltzes — okay, folk music is not supposed to be diverse, but this is, after all, an advanced individual's processed take on folk music, and just how advanced can an individual be if he builds every third song of his upon the same POOM-cha-cha-POOM-cha-cha structure? (Let alone the fact that the nostalgia-tinted 'A Sunday Smile' may be the most sincerely moving tune on the album). I honestly do not endorse Condon's attitude towards rhythm; he seems to be too engulfed in the flow to flesh out the rhythmic work properly.
Still, by the time Condon leads us into the grand finale of the title track, he has, once more, convinced me that, in between the proverbially stale clichés of (and about) French folk culture and the grotesque, art-for-art's sake, meaningless concatenations of the «Santa Fe style», this whole thing is about the charismatic inner world of a sensitive young person, even if that world, in order to open up to strangers, requires to be fueled by completely random triggers. And so, once again, there may not be a whole lot of great music here, but there is sincerity — and intrigue — and that is enough to justify a friendly, if not ecstatic, thumbs up.
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