Beirut – The Rip Tide

January 01, 1970

(Pompeii)

 

http://beirutband.com/

 

The fact that 25-year-old Zach Condon is so
often dubbed a “virtuoso” or “wunderkind” is arguably more reflective of critic
than subject. We all wet ourselves over Condon’s borrowed elements of Balkan
folk, Parisian street music, mariachi, etc.; but did we react to genuinely
skilled instrumentation, or the sheer novelty of these exotic sounds amid the
largely insular world of US indie? Debut Gulag
Orkestar
and follow-up The Flying
Club Cup
were dazzling – no arguments here. And 2009’s double-EP release, March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland,
sufficiently charmed BLURT that Beirut earned twin Album and Artist Of the Year awards.

 

 But Condon’s
cultural Frankensteining was more the action of a clever opportunist than an
actual mastermind: a slightly more
sensitive, appreciative version of what Vampire Weekend did (with what Paul
Simon did) with Afropop. It’s boiling down a foreign genre into a syrup. One
generous splash to make a good song great, to excite the listener’s palate –
without their ever having to rifle through junkshop vinyl just to hear a damned
accordion once in a while.

 

(It should be noted that we also talk up
Condon’s prodigiousness because if he isn’t special, if he’s just an average Joe, that makes the majority of us
twentysomethings feel like sub-Joe, snivelling failures. And no-one enjoys
that.)

 

Now the prevarication has ended, and we
have stopped placing bets on Condon’s next direction – calypso? piobaireachd? ethnic Han? – only to find
our hero wandering between New Mexico and New York. It is not so much that the
band has shrugged off its Latin and European influences; more that these
influences have been assimilated seamlessly into the whole. The Rip Tide retroactively validates its
predecessors: it proves Condon’s purity of purpose. The passion pre-existed the
gimmickry.

 

This album-without-gimmicks is a small and
pompless thing. ‘A Candle’s Fire’ starts the album off with the customary bang,
all crisp snares and clean brass, nevertheless far more contained than “Nantes”
or “Gulag Orkestar”. It leads straight into “Santa Fe”, which begins in the
chipper Casio vein of Condon’s Realpeople period and swiftly evolves into a
stirring, hearty combination of the two styles. The melodies are warm, serene,
and sentimental, not just in this, a song about his hometown, but throughout
the record. It seems contrived to say this least “global” album is also the most
personal, as if one notion precluded the other. So, to make it clear, it does not sound like home because it
sounds like North America. It sounds like home because it sounds like Home:
comfort and recuperation. That already well-beloved line on the dizzying
“Cuixmala” says a lot: “be fair to me / I
may drift awhile
“. You don’t hear many slogans of self-care these days, so
hold on to that one.

 

And then some of the songs are utter pop –
“The Vagabonds of the Old Town” with its staccato pumps of piano and
tambourine, is for all the world like a Jens Lekman cover, and the tidal rise
and fall of the brass in “The Rip Tide” itself foregrounds an unprecedentedly
strict/structured drumline. More than ever, Condon repeats himself. “East
Harlem” is comprised of three chords and little more than three lines,
resolving over and over in “she’s waiting
for the night to fall / let it fall, I’ll never make it in time
“. Luckily
for Beirut, this is entirely poignant enough.

 

Generally, those fans who already attested
to Condon’s “genius” will swoon on unchanged; those who snorted in derision
will be unmoved. But he can no longer be accused of musical grifting, selling
old trinkets from Europe for profit. Nope, our precocious songwriter (damn
him!) has a sincere respect for all of his tools, including those more common.
He can write a piano song like “Goshen”, which is beautiful devoid of all bells
and whistles – and that is surely one of the truest tests of the craft.

 

The
Rip Tide
is moderate in ambition, and hardly a masterwork,
if such things empirically exist. But it portrays a single, glowing moment, and
it seals over that “world music” pigeonhole. Two birds with one stone, one
album with nine tracks. Few chords, few lines, and few concepts: simplicity is
the ultimate sophistication, right?

 

(Da Vinci said that, allegedly, so there
has to be some truth to it. He was a virtuoso,
y’know.)

 

DOWNLOAD: “East Harlem”, “The Rip Tide”, “The Vagabonds of Old Town”,
“Cuixmala” MERYL TRUSSLER

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