Media hype has its pros and cons. It can do really good things for what would otherwise be an extremely low-profile indie act who can’t move any records. The flip side is that you’re always measured against the expectations set in place by the hype. Such is the case with 22 year-old Zach Condon’s widely acclaimed band Beirut. A great deal of the hype and acclaim are not off base; he deserves most of it. But what the hype rarely seems to acknowledge is how unapologetically gimmicky Condon’s musical vision is. You all know the story by now. As a refresher, he dropped out of high school at the age of 16 and traveled extensively through Europe. During his travels he evidently fell in love with Balkan folk music. His full-length debut Gulag Orkestar represents this love affair and while it’s an interesting listen, it’s also derivative.
Gimmicks don’t bother everyone. But they bother me.
Or rather gimmicks bother me most when they’re as pronounced as Beirut’s and they’re coupled with what is otherwise really awful music. Thing is Condon doesn’t make really awful music; quite the contrary. Condon makes really fascinating—sometimes self indulgent—music that’s packed with sincerity and soul. Perhaps it’s the overall quality of Beirut’s work that makes it easy to overlook the gimmicks…but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or that they’re not worth mentioning.
Korea Town’s Wiltern Theater was packed last Friday night and all sorts of people came out to see the New Mexico native blow on his really awesome trumpet collection. But it wasn’t just Condon releasing his spit valves onto the Wiltern stage; he had what seemed like an entire high school marching band onstage with him making all sorts of gloriously pitchy noises that blended together for a huge curtain of brassy sound. There were mandolins, accordions, ukuleles, glockenspiels, double bass, and Condon’s awesomely imperfect voice.
All of those instruments and all of those people onstage are an example of the aforementioned gimmicks.
But again, these are gimmicks drowned in ambitiously interesting music. This was a fine show, really it was. It’s was just hard to get past how much was happening onstage. There was very little space in the music, some of the instruments and players were kind of overkill and it just made for sort of an exhausting evening. The audience was bombarded with so much brass that it sort of clouded the overall goodness of Condon’s music, not to mention gave us some radical ear fatigue.
The Beirut musical collective covered plenty of material on Friday night, mainly from 2006’s Gulag Orkestar and 2007’s The Flying Club Cup. Also there to support were show openers Devon Williams from Los Angeles and the exceptionally entertaining Brunettes from New Zealand. The combination of all three of these acts made for an exotic evening of music, one I am not sure I’d have the energy to put myself through again anytime soon. But that’s just one dude’s opinion. One thing’s for sure: Zach Condon is making some interesting and remarkably unusual music and for that reason alone, a Beirut show is totally worth seeing. – Kenny S. McGuane
Written for FILTER MAGAZINE ONLINE