By Sarah Kitteringham
It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly Zach Condon’s music became so tepid. On his fourth album as Beirut, the September 11th release No No No, Condon’s style remains stuck in the rut it burrowed into with 2011’s The Rip Tide. Herein is a bland familiarity that offers no momentum or improvement on past achievements. Odd, for someone who is the mastermind behind a precocious indie-baroque pop act whose musical integrations as a teen were wide-ranging and worldly.
When the then 18-year-old emerged with the gorgeous Gulag Orkestar in 2005, his hybridization of world influences with folk and baroque pop was enthralling. Lasting only 37 minutes, the album featured 11 songs composed and nearly entirely performed by Condon. Despite hailing from Albuquerque, New Mexico, the music was some variation of Eastern European folk inspired by his adventures in Europe after dropping out of high school as a 16-year-old and fleeing across the Atlantic.
Resplendent with a variety of unusual instruments, including ukulele, mandolin, accordion, organ, trumpet, the warm brass of a flugelhorn and more, Gulag Orkestar was set to the backdrop of Condon’s unusual sweet croon. Jaunty yet melancholic, the richly layered vocals gave the package a grandiose, dust-layered feel. Adorned with photos torn from a book in a library in Leipzig, the entire package was a bedroom-recording affair that felt far more advanced than such projects tend to be.
Back then, Condon seemed like the second coming of Neutral Milk Hotel’s tortured genius Jeff Mangum, albeit one who identified with the music of communal perseverance in the face of hardship as opposed to projecting the obsessive emotions the oddly insular develop while experiencing brief snippets of humanity.
Condon described his European music interests as giving the album a “youthful, wanderlust element.” Indeed, it’s similar to music by bands like A Hawk and a Hacksaw, inspired by other traditions but simultaneously integrating new with the old.
The Balkan exoticism of Gulag… was shed in favour of French pop on the 2007 follow-up Flying Cub Cup, moving instead towards romanticism and whimsy. Still utilizing Condon’s penchant for layered vocals and orchestrated arrangements, it featured arrangements by Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy (traded for two free weeks in Beirut’s studio) and each song was intended to evoke and celebrate a different city within France. In contrast, its follow-up EP March of the Zapotec/Holland integrated Mexican music, courtesy of a 19-piece band from Teotitlán del Valle who backed Condon, known as The Jimenez Band alongside the Holland side, which featured Boards of Canada-esque solo electronic music, credited to Condon’s pre-Beirut project Realpeople.
With all that, Condon had cemented his place amongst the upper echelons of grandiose indie pop. These releases were unveiled at a time when Arcade Fire, The Shins, Sufjan Stevens and Modest Mouse were either peaking or already in the throes of inevitable decline. Perhaps fitting then that Beirut’s music soon lost its own luster, with the scaled back 2011 album dubbed The Rip Tide.
Dubbed by critics as the sound of Beirut growing up, it lacked the variety and authenticity of previous works. Written in isolation while living in a cabin in New York, it was the first Beirut album to be recorded as a band, rather than Condon laying down tracks on his own and combining them in production. While many of the instruments remained, the magic had waned as the songs lacked personality and variety. Moving away from its world music origins into American pop music with Beirut’s characteristic love of baroque, it sounded generic.
A similar problem plagues Beirut’s first in four years, the nine-track No No No. While technically proficient, it’s boringly restrained and inspires little affection. Ten years into Beirut’s career, this collection feels unnecessary, a feeling that the four-year wait exacerbates. This musical territory has been mined previously too much more interesting effect, making the album somewhat of a chore and many songs indecipherable from the others unless specific notes are written on each. Opener “Gibraltar” features a hand-drum backbeat alongside jaunty piano and crooning vocals; it’s restrained and mediocre. “No No No” has an intro cut from Flying Cub Cup, all brief bursts of trombone and wire brush snare hits. “As Needed” is a welcome instrumental reprieve, dominated by a menacing violin background; that darkness is quickly interlaced with light. Meanwhile, songs like “At Once,” “Pacheco” and “Fener” offer little beyond a cutesy sense of twee that becomes grating. Closer “So Allowed” is similar sonically to the opener, offering little on top.
No No No is well produced and well arranged and well done. It just isn’t much more than that.Beirut, No No No