You just don’t see many accordions or trombones in music videos, for the same reason you don’t usually pay much to hear them. It’s not discrimination. It’s just that rocking out isn’t necessarily your first impulse when you hear, say, Sicilian funeral brass or Balkan folk. That was the case, anyway, before Beirut got a hold of them. Beirut scratches an itch only they can reach.
At climax, Beirut’s size-belying sound swells into that of a full ensemble featuring a chorus. Full of wanderlust and ever taming a signature perennial bedhead, frontman Zach Condon is the quintessential troubadour – equally at home summoning moods from across the globe with plucky ukulele, weeping flugelhorn, haunting piano, or wailing vocals. Bandmates, meanwhile, juggle multiple instruments themselves, weaving seamlessly between restrained background and space-filling fanfare. Think Cake trumpet, only without the tired guitars.
The Fonda Theatre in LA facilitated a cozy and intimate ambience, providing a welcome contrast to the following night’s (also sold-out) appearance at a colossal amphitheater. Richly layered chords bled from starkly innocuous into darkly minor, with portent creeping up from the bassy, brassy bottom. Beirut are pros indeed: crisp, precise, and apparently allergic to errant notes. (In fact, frontman Zach Condon seemed pleasantly surprised when he abruptly signaled a grand pause which rendered the ensemble silent at once, as one.)
The set’s first half sounded soothing, sonorous, and, well, rehearsed. It’s only natural at the conclusion of a tour lacking new songs. But it also brings to mind the one critique I’ve heard leveled at Beirut in reviews: in short, “Riskier!”
The concert took on new energy in the second half. Having had their appetites whetted earlier by instrumental-electronic opener LA Takedown (reminiscent of an 80s fantasy movie soundtrack), fans of Condon’s own electronic side project (Realpeople) were elated to hear progressively less inhibited explorations of standby tunes. We were treated to an encore of dance club-ready remixes of “My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille” and “Gulag Orkestar”. This music cavorts however they play it, but its form also begs to be messed with.
Both “riptide” and “undertow” are misnomers for the same phenomenon, which isn’t a tide and doesn’t actually pull you under. It’s more of an aggressive express lane out to sea: hopefully you’re headed that way, because working against it is just working against yourself.
The Spanish for “undertow” (resaca) also means “hangover”, which brings me to Beirut’s latest music video (for the eponymous single, “The Rip Tide”). Alas, no trombones. Nor much at all, for that matter, which is itself a relief from the standard. It also befits the song’s minimalistic lyrics, in which Condon recounts rediscovering lonesomeness while writing in isolation and recovering from an extensive world tour. They further evoke an identification with the cyclical all-is-one-ness of life’s flow (“the waves and I found the rolling tide”). What is depicted in the video is a sublimely epic scene so appropriate to the lushness of the sound that it’s hard to tell where background ends and foreground begins. And then the sky turns liquid. Yeah.
Drest in the Voices of Comrades
Where hither meets thither, there is beauty. Similarly, Beirut’s often-blurry line between harmony and melody is mesmerizing. There’s a kind of mutualistic nudism to it. No one’s hiding, and no one’s really exposed. And so you’ll never hear the accordion belong more than here, in the Gulag Orkestar.