The Smiths Go Surfing
When Beirut first hit the scene with their 2006 debut album, Gulag Orkestar, they were lauded by many as the next Neutral Milk Hotel. Bandleader Zach Condon’s Balkan folk-infused brand of orchestral pop brought a fresh new dimension to the tired indie music scene. Their follow-up album, The Flying Cup Club, received similar reception, but something changed after their third album, The Rip Tide. Gone were the foreign rhythms and instrumentations that made their initial outings so endearing. Instead, a combination of familiar chord progressions and unimposing melodies made up the fabric of their sound. The album that followed, No No No, continued in the same pop-oriented direction, and was largely reviled by fans of the band, who derided it as “too American.” But after four years of self-imposed exile in Berlin, Condon and company are back with their fifth full-length album, Gallipoli.
In reference to the conception of this album, Condon offers up this anecdote:
“We stumbled into a medieval-fortressed island town of Gallipoli one night and followed a brass band procession fronted by priests carrying a statue of the town’s saint…” It’s clear that he brought that energy with him when recording these songs, as every track on the album is infused with the essence of a Mediterranean festival.
This album is most remarkable for its transportive qualities. The very first ukulele strum on the opening track, “When I Die,” creates a portal to that exotic city nestled on the coast of the Ionian Sea, and we find ourselves on the same crowded street that Condon happened upon. The song “Landslide” evokes a very tangible feeling of nostalgia; the driving synths give the song a sense of motion, and Condon’s forlorn crooning is the audio embodiment of homesickness. On track seven, “Corfu,” the ceaseless caress of minor 7th chords eases the song along. The song presents itself as a soundtrack to a stroll along a sunset shoreline, but this peaceful imagery is soon disturbed by the rising cloud of dissonant synthesizers. It seems that all is not well in paradise.
Beirut’s music has always been renowned for its ornate instrumentations and the unique timbres, and Gallipoli delivers those qualities in full. The brass section steals the show here. An example of the brass section’s power is the horn arrangements on “We Never Lived Here.” It’s impossible not to appreciate the interlocking melodies as they weave around each other with the precision of a surgeon’s knife.
Another standout moment is the soaring horns on “Light in the Atoll,” which pair perfectly with Condon’s firmly-grounded vocals. And when it comes to Condon’s vocals, his haunting ethereal delivery on the title track is undoubtedly his best performance. But the place where this album really shines is its instrumentals. The timbre of the distorted synths that can be heard on “On Mainau Island” is otherworldly; it’s a shame that they were only utilized on only this song.
However, Condon’s Morrissey-esque vocals can grow tiring when they’re not accompanied by the luxurious instrumentation. Track five, “I Giardini,” gradually grates the ears, as his voice takes center stage with only a piano, synth and some percussive sounds to prop it up. The following song, “Gauze fur Zah,” had the potential to be one of the more noteworthy songs on the album, with its reggae-influenced drums and doo-wop-esque vocal counterpoint, but the synth wash coda (which accounts for almost half the song) weighs it down to the point of grueling.
With Gallipoli, Condon and his gang have created a tropical microcosm for the listener. This is a place untouched by the social and political strife that seems to pervade every facet of these modern times. Longtime fans who were put off by the overly-polished and Americanized sound of their last two albums will no doubt be pleased by this latest venture. While this isn’t necessarily a return to form, it’s indicative of evolution in a direction that feels more true to their roots.