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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Beirut: No No No


1) Gibraltar; 2) No No No; 3) At Once; 4) August Holland; 5) As Needed; 6) Perth; 7) Pacheco; 8) Fener; 9) So Allowed.

Well now, look at this. Four more years, and only nine more songs — No No No is even shorter than The Rip Tide, meaning that either Condon is at the end of his rope, or he is deliberately trying to convince us that less is more, and that any songwriter entrapped in a formula should at least try and cut down his production to a bare minimum (hear that, Mr. Springsteen?). Keeping in mind that this approach did not help The Rip Tide from being the same old cud, we should not set our expectations too high here — but, curiously, at least in my case these expectations have been pleasantly deceived.

As he himself acknowledged in interviews, Condon began writing this next album in a state of creative crisis — and eventually switched to a mini-format, jettisoning his large backing band in favor of a minimalistic piano trio. It seems that this actually helped him to concentrate more on the «melodic skeletons» of the tunes than on his usual East European atmospherics; and although the band was back for the final recording sessions, trombones and trumpets and accordions all in a row, most of the songs still have a transparently minimalistic sheen to them: the percussion and piano lines that open ʽGibraltarʼ are fairly typical of the entire record. Consequently, No No No sounds unmistakably like Beirut — and at the same time it gives us a fresh approach, «deconst­ructing» the classic Condon sound without spoiling it.

Some of these songs I would even warily define as «catchy», just because the simple, repetitive, distinctive keyboard lines (such as in ʽGibraltarʼ and ʽPerthʼ) stick in the brain faster than... well, anything Condon ever wrote before. But that's fine, it's really more of an attention spam problem than a sign of quality. What really matters is that this approach helps the man get some of that excessive quasi-Balkanian Weltschmerz out of his system, and the songs become cozier, prettier, more intimate, and intelligently optimistic — the lyrics seem like they were nonsensically thrown together out of a bunch of stock phrases from The Great Relationships Quotebook, but with the amount of air coming from Condon's nose, few people will make out the words anyway; more important is the effect of combining his high-pitched nasal singing with those skeletal acoustic and electric piano melodies, which, to me, sounds very pleasant (sort of a sunnier anti-thesis to the Thom Yorke vibe, if you wish).

Even without the vocals, the results can be nice: the instrumental ʽAs Neededʼ is a charming little piece of chamber pop, opened and closed with a gentle folksy acoustic riff and slightly Beach Boy-ish in the middle, with the strings forming a series of soothing musical waves against the relentless, but also soothing, hammering of the piano — a simple, but efficient example of the man's composing skills, so often remaining underappreciated behind the brass wall of sound. If, for some reason, you happen to be irritated by the man's voice (which is a distinct probability for all «crooner»-type singers), this is the only track off the record that you will need; fortunately for me, I can take it all, and twenty-nine minutes is precisely the maximum that can be intaken with­out the gag reflex setting in — because, after all, this is a set formula.

A thumbs up it is, even though it is not at all clear where we go from here. The man shows no signs of going back to the little shop of electronica, which is a good sign (there are some synthe­sizers on these tracks, but they are used sparingly and intelligently, like in the merry-go-round carousel intro to the title track); the man has thought of a good way to brush up on his melodic feel — by clearing away everything that is superfluous — which is an even better sign. But the man still retains his "earthy romantic" persona, which means that, most likely, sooner or later he will still return to the Gulag Orkestar mode of functioning, and whether he will manage to snap out of the predictable formula then remains, of course, an open question. In the meantime, all we can do is wish him some of that New Mexican good luck. 

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