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Beirut - Gulag Orkestar

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Artist: Beirut

Album: Gulag Orkestar

Label: Ba Da Bing

Review date: May. 7, 2006

Gulag Orkestar starts at the end, so to speak, with a mariachi funeral march. It’s an odd way to begin your career, but 19-year-old Zach Condon already sounds closer to death than birth. Beirut’s brilliant debut album is full of grandeur and intimacy, with accordions, ukuleles and brass instruments complementing contemporary notions like drum machines and digestible song structures while simultaneously channeling the ancient appeal of Balkan folk music. On top of all this, or perhaps below, is Condon’s voice; the sullen croon lends a gravity to these songs that blows through each churning waltz and march like a gust across the Danube.

As the songs parade forward, they lend themselves to cinematic pastiche: the romantic “Prenzlauerberg” conjures images of ballroom dancing; “Rhineland,” the soundtrack to a battle in slow motion; “Bratislava,” the dance before a feast. Stephin Merritt and Scott Walker are obvious influences, singers whose taste for the maudlin and tragic is apparently to Condon’s liking. It’s up for argument what’s more surprising – that a 19 year old has managed to tastefully pilfer these pillars of pop, or that he wove their traits into foreign traditions so seamlessly.

Beirut is no stranger to Web-savvy music fans. Accolades have been steadily building around his “Postcard from Italy,” a leaked song that serves as a precise introduction. With Condon’s ukulele and A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s Jeremy Barnes’ martial drumming locked in casual groove, “Postcard” confidently broadcasts the vision of a boy with both ambition and the talent to back it up. At the age 19, Condon could be construed as precocious, but it’s just as likely that he’s an old soul. Perhaps when one mingles with traditions so hallowed, the spirits can’t help but take over. It’s hard to be a boy when you’re 1,000 years old.

By Mark Griffey

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