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Beirut – March Of The Zapotec / Holland (Album Review)


You certainly can’t accuse Zach Condon of resting on his laurels. Following up 2007’s extraordinary Flying Club Cup was never going to be easy: but instead of reprising that album’s Balkan-tinged hurdy-gurdy chamber music, he’s kicked off 2009 by zipping off at two different tangents altogether.

This release gathers together two EPs, with only Condon’s distinctive Scott Walker-esque croon creating any immediate links between each other or with the previous Beirut album. March Of The Zapotec enlists a small-town Mexican funeral band; and is as brassy and mournful as that would suggest. Holland – and I’m not having you on here – is lo-fi 80s-inflected electro-pop which wouldn’t be out of place in the record collection of an avid Magnetic Fields fan.

Of the two releases, March Of The Zapotec is the less eye-opening: it’s half-instrumental and heavily focused on the chunky brass section, which provides virtually all of the musical input. The musicianship is of the highest order, but tends to overshadow Condon’s vocals where they do appear, and as a result the whole feels grafted together rather than being the result of an organic creative process. If anything it recalls the less successful moments of Beirut’s debut The Gulag Orkestar, where the profusion of ideas pulling in different directions gave the sense of an artist still finding his feet.

Only on The Shrew does Condon break free of the Tijuana brass stylings. Bound around a three-step waltz, it integrates the horns into a swirl of instrumentation more akin to the central European classical feel of The Flying Club Cup. As a whole, though, March Of The Zapotec allows one idea to overshadow Condon’s many talents.

Holland, written and recorded at home, is on the face of it a less ambitious project; but yields substantially greater rewards. The two opening tracks marry bubbly synths and muted hi-NRG beats with Condon’s rich baritone, which is distinctive enough to dismiss any accusations of copying the ’80s electro-pop duos with a similar mission.

Venice is by far the strongest track here: opening with delicate Boards of Canada atmospherics, it slowly allows the familiar horns and strings to creep back in, but never to take the focus away from Condon’s rising, swooping voice: surely Beirut’s greatest asset. He’s created something as original as The Flying Club Cup with this elegant, understated folktronica; and it genuinely feels like the seed of a credible new direction.

Closing track No Dice is substantially cheesier, and appears to be aimed somewhere towards the dancefloor. On one level it’s a throwaway instrumental; on another it’s densely-layered, beautifully produced electronic pop in the vein of Magnetic Fields spin-off band the Future Bible Heroes. It might not lead anywhere in the future – but makes the point that, from a musical point of view, Condon is pretty much at home anywhere.

The playfulness of these two EPs is both their strength and their weakness. They make the point that Condon has the talent to move in any direction that he pleases, but the reliance on smart ideas means that they only occasionally create a similar emotional impact to the work that got us so excited about Beirut in the first place.