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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Beirut: Gulag Orkestar


1) Gulag Orkestar; 2) Prenzlauerberg; 3) Brandenburg; 4) Postcards From Italy; 5) Mount Wroclai (Idle Days); 6) Rhi­ne­land (Heartland); 7) Scenic World; 8) Bratislava; 9) The Bunker; 10) The Canals Of Our City; 11) After The Curtain.

Even if you have only just arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, without having spent an overall total of around two and a half years in it like I happened to have, you will immediately notice that the town thrives on kitsch. Being located almost equally far away from every civilized center in the world, it compensates by sucking in superficial cultural elements from each of them and regurgi­tating them in series of some of the most oddly, randomly, and — for tourists — excitedly juxta­posed sets of display cases in the world. You may spend all your life in Zia Country, never setting foot outside the domain of coyotes and cottontails, and still, through the power of ersatz, travel the globe, albeit mostly in an exoticized state of mind.

Granted, Zachary Francis Condon, who, based on all the sources I could find, was actually born in Santa Fe (a rarity, that — up to now, I thought people don't ever get born in Santa Fe, they just sort of materialize there from time to time), founded his band and wrote his music through the ac­tual experiences of travelling in Europe rather than pure ersatz; most, or maybe all, of the places mentioned on this LP are locations whose air the young prodigy has actually breathed in.

Still, why the heck am I not surprised that a band fronted by an American, consisting mostly of resi­dents of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, NM, calling itself Beirut (the one city that Zach admittedly never ever visited in person), releasing an album called GULAG (how do you sleep, Alexander Isayevich?) Orkestar (that's Croatian spelling, FYI), adorning it with a photo found in a Leipzig library, filling it with songs whose titles and lyrics travel from Germany to Slovakia to Italy, and playing them in a manner most reminiscent of Yugoslavian folk music — why am I not surprised that the whole thing keeps reminding me of that first visit to the Museum of Internatio­nal Folk Art on Santa Fe's Museum Hill, where the basic reaction was uncontrolled giggle: «so, which two cultures are going to shake the unshakable hands in the next display case?»

Nevertheless, even if the kitschy, predictably unpredictable «Santa Fe Style» mostly sucks (I mean, I am still fond of the place, but for entirely different reasons), the debut album of Beirut does not. It is not a masterpiece: the style is way too monotonous, and Condon's pop hook senses are seriously underdeveloped, or perhaps he is consciously trying to bury them. But neither is this simply an ecstatic declaration of the «ooh, look at me, I'm so advanced in my knowledge and in­fluences» kind, the perennial bane of indie music. Well, there certainly are elements of that, or else the guy wouldn't probably have included so many toponyms in the song titles (on the other hand, what a better way to make local kids interested in European geography?). Yet the basic motivation for Gulag Orkestar, (I want to believe), is quite different.

What we have here is a young impressionable artistic mind, smitten with the folk tradition of Eastern Europe and beset with the idea of describing its own experiences and feelings through the medium of that tradition. Much as I dislike quoting old man Christgau, he hit the nail on the head when writing that, in comparison to Condon's Yugoslavian influences — «contained chaos and wild drums» — Condon's own music is «irrepressible melodicism tempered by harmonic me­lancholy». Indeed; Condon borrows the superficial elements of Balkan music (the instrumenta­tion, mainly brass and accordeon, and the basic melodic structures) and, rather than using them to reproduce the reckless drunken debauchery of that tradition, adapts them as background for the retro-romantic yearnings of his own heart.

Of course, one could easily bring in field experts deriding us for the clichéd association of Balkan folk music with gypsies, bears, and frantic bop-till-you-drop dancing in the streets, and stating that Zachary Condon simply demonstrates a deeper, subtler understanding of that musical culture than any of us bloody tourists can ever hope to develop. Possibly, but I'd bet all of those field ex­perts' credentials would be fairly flimsy. Condon is a bloody tourist himself, and way too young and inexperienced (he was barely 20 years old upon the album's release, and his first close en­counters with the emulated musical tradition began when he was about 17) to gain a properly de­ep understanding of all those things; it is fairly obvious that he is doing his personal schtick, bor­rowing the formal trappings from another culture — much like the Kinks and the Beatles did their naïve imitations of the Indian vibe with 'See My Friends' and 'Norwegian Wood'.

But this is exactly what makes Gulag Orkestar worthy of your attention. The delicate mix of kitsch and sincerity. This is not some sort of lame tribute to Goran Bregović or Boban Marković, but an original creation that borrows elements of their music, originally used for an entirely diffe­rent purpose, to paint a sort of one-of-a-kind «An American In Eastern Europe» picture. And even if the songs, with their balalaikas, accordeons, trumpets, and what-not, all tend to merge to­gether after a short while (I only find 'Postcards From Italy', with its tender, friendly brass riff, to stand on its own as a truly memorable composition), the overall impression is lite-wond'rous.

Condon does not have much originality, but he's got taste: his lyrics are simple, but never flash­ing their clichéd nature, and his singing, admittedly inspired by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields yet also showing traces of Andrew Bird's influences (in fact, quite a few of these songs could ea­sily be passed off as obscure Bird outtakes), is impeccable on the grounds it covers. He also seems to have his feet planted steadily on the ground: there is sadness and loneliness all over this thing, but he never overplays it, drowning in mannerisms and pathos — it's loud, but still low-key and humble. In short — unmemorable, but charismatic.

I must warn you, though, that I really hated the record upon first listen. Not being a big fan of drunk Serbo-Croatian parties and Emir Kusturica in the first place, I was even more upset when it turned out that the songs were so flabby, dynamics-deprived, and hookless at that, and it took a few listens to understand it all contributed to making the experience worthwhile rather than incre­asing its ugliness. So beware: if you do like wild gypsy stuff, this is not wild gypsy stuff. It's not party music at all — it's a one-man project! «Beirut» does consist of several people when they're playing live, but in the studio, Condon overdubs most of the instruments all by himself. So Gulag Orkestar may just be one of the non-rowdiest albums ever to be recorded in a rowdy manner, and for that alone deserves a thumbs up.

Check "Gulag Orkestar" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Gulag Orkestar" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. Well, this was certainly an interesting review. I quite like Beirut's music, but as a Croat, I don't really know what you were talking about when you mentioned "drunk Serbo-Croatian parties". Contrary to what most people might believe, aside from an almost identical language, Croatian and Serbian cultures aren't all that similar. Especially, I'd like to point out that instruments like brass and the accordion are something of a rarity in Croatian folk music. On the other hand, they're very much a staple of Serbian music. It's not a coincidence that Goran Bregović, Boban Marković and Emir Kusturica are all Serbs.

    "Yugoslavian folk music" is also a strange term because it encompasses extremely different types of music, from the gypsy music and the brass/accordion-fueled Serbian music (both typical for the Balkans), to strong Alpine/Austrian influences in Slovene music (polkas or whatnot) and strong Italian influences in most of coastal Croatia. The differences in the choice of folk instruments and even singing styles in former Yugoslav states are rather large.

    My point is this: Beirut doesn't sound like it has anything to do with Croatian folk music. It does, however, use a lot of the same instruments used in Serbian, Bosnian and Macedonian music (and probably Romanian, Bulgarian, etc.). I think it's important to stress out that just because two nations share the same (or almost the same) language, as Croats and Serbs do, that doesn't mean they share the same culture or, indeed, folk music.

  2. You're right, of course. I stand by "Yugoslavian" since it covers Serbia, Bosnia, and Macedonia at least, but the "Croatian" part certainly does not fit in. Count it as a slip of the pen (keyboard).