Beirut: Acoustic Music With Guts That Audiophiles Might Just Dig

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I had one of those moments a month or so ago in Streetlight Records here in San Francisco where a song comes on the store's sound system that catches my breath, sends a shudder down my spine and instantly hooks up with my DNA somehow.  In the past, I have been introduced to some wonderful bands this way including The Cure, The Smiths, Queens of the Stone Age and some others. This time the sound I heard was mariachi horns and pump organ pulsating under this yelping voice -- which reminded me of a young Emitt Rhodes being dangled precariously by an evil villain from a tall building waiting for Superman to rescue him. That sound turned out to be  a band called Beirut. I have since purchased three of their albums, two on vinyl LPs. 

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March of the Zapotec was the record being played that day in the record store and it turned out to be a two disc affair, parts of it recorded in Teotitlan, Oaxaca, Mexico. Audiophiles will probably like this recording because there are almost no electric instruments on the album which is filled with tubas, trumpets, trombones, accordions, saxophones, clarinets, parade drums and so on. Not exactly the daily faire one would expect from a group emanating from Brooklyn, NY. The brainchild of Zach Condon, the music has and old-meets-new feeling that is somehow oddly European flavored despite the distinctly Mexican influences. Taken as more of a whole, the album's two sides reveal a composer with very distinct concept of arrangement. I love the flavor of "The Shrew" which starts out very plaintive and then kicks in with the full Mariachi band to the point where you can really feel the parade drum and tubas pushing air from your speakers.

The two discs are short, but I can understand why they split it up instead of cramming them onto one. The second disc, individually titled Real People Holland, plays more like a set of demos by Condon done on his computer. Somehow it all fits together, with titles like "My Night With The Prostitue From Marseille" and "The Concubine" (with its toy piano and accordion textures). Not surprisingly, putting Condon's voice into a more traditional pop band structure makes it sound a bit more pedestrian, akin to the yelping clean cut sound you might hear on an old 80s record by Haircut One Hundred or The Housemartins. Good idea to stick with the unusual instrumentation, Zach; otherwise you might sound like any other pop band this side of The Postal Service. 

The vinyl pressing on this is good, probably 140-gram, quiet and well centered.

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Riptide, Beirut's 2011 album, continues some of that Mariachi flavor found on 2009's March of the Zapotec. A bit more indivual-song-oriented, the album still plays like some alternate universe Tom Waits album, where Tom's gruff Beelzebub flavored characters are replaced by more angelic sounding sorts teetering on the brink. Some of the arrangements are just wonderful, like on "Paynes Bay," which has a tuba-trumpet-french horn-filled breakdown in the middle which feels like it could be background music for an old Betty Boop cartoon. The title track starts of sounding like a Carol King tune with just piano but soon gives way to a more exotic flavors including cello to carry the lilting, soft, hook-free melody along.

This is great rainy day music to listen to while reading old letters from a lost love.

The fairly thick, probably 150-gram vinyl pressing of The Riptide sounds much bigger and rounder than the decent but brighter 320 kbps MP3 downloads (free with the LP purchase). Condon's voice jumps out of the mix more naturally on vinyl backed by the haunting muted quality of real acoustic instruments playing in a room (not necessarily close mic'd, at least that is how its mixed; I do not know for sure how it was recorded technically).

Overall, Beirut's music sounds particularly majestic when you turn it up loud on vinyl. You can feel the difference on tracks like "Vagabond," where the bass drum pulsates nicely out of the speakers on vinyl (you lose some of the thump on the MP3s). This is a lovely track with its harpsichord touches and violin textures. "Port of Call" sounds fabulous with its double-tracked Ukulele strumming, interlocking piano chording and glockenspiel punctuation marks setting the stage for the return of the horn section. The MP3s lose something in translation, some of that mid-range lushness is gone and the digital edge surrounding Condon's voice reduces some of the impact this music makes.

Clearly this is a special album for the band and they even put some extra special effort into the album cover which has gorgeous real linen fabric on the cover with copper foil text printed on it. I haven't seen a cover like this since some old 1950s-era special edition collections I might have found at a garage sale.

Beirut is building something distinctive here. I'm looking forward to digging into their earlier records and hopefully seeing them perform live sometime soon.

Good stuff!

 

Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written. www.smotroff.com
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