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Beirut - March of The Zapotec and Realpeople Holland

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Artist: Beirut

Album: March of The Zapotec and Realpeople Holland

Label: Pompeii

Review date: Feb. 16, 2009

Zach Condon is one of those people who draw a lot of inspiration from the places they visit. His much-adored debut Gulag Orkestar was ostensibly an homage to Balkan folk music (although it also reflected other European orchestral and big band influences). His second full-length, The Flying Club Cup, was his western Europe album, a gloss on the catalogs of Jacques Brel or Charles Aznavour.

After he released The Flying Club Cup, Condon announced that he was taking a break from Beirut, citing difficulties from his constant touring schedule. Now, just a year later, Beirut is back and apparently refreshed. Condon’s released a new EP of Beirut material and an EP of songs from Realpeople, the synthpop band that, before Beirut, was Condon’s primary outlet.

March of the Zapotec bills itself as “new recordings from the state of Oaxaca,” and the album was inspired by a trip that Condon and some friends took to the town of Teotitlan del Valle, just outside of Oaxaca. The EP contains one field recording of a band playing in El Zocolo Plaza, and a local ground called Band Jimenez makes a contribution on several tracks. Condon wrote the songs, inspired by what he heard in Oaxaca, and recorded them either in Teotitlan del Valle or back home in Brooklyn.

Going back to his first album, Condon has often had more success as an individual songwriter than he has putting together a full album’s worth of material. In part, this is because his work claims inspiration from a specific place but almost necessarily romanticizes it and elides the more unpleasant aspects. The Flying Club Cup, for instance, evoked an imagined France of 75 years ago, in which all the people are roguish sophisticates who listen to only the best music. This idea inspired very good individual pop songs but it’s difficult for a contemporary songwriter to work in this style without a lot of it sounding the same, or without the conceit wearing thin.

It’s an easier thing to pull off during the course of a 15-minute EP, however, and the songs on March of the Zapotec have a looser, more experimental feel. Some, like “La Llorana” and “The Akara” are divided into several movements, such that part of the song may be the work of Band Jimenez while another part may be Condon recording at home in Brooklyn. Other songs are entirely instrumental. None of them are likely to go into heavy rotation, but they do show Condon expanding his band’s creative reach.

The second EP, Holland could not be more different, at least in terms of its backstory. Realpeople was a bedroom recording project that Condon worked on before starting Beirut. He has already released some of this material; “My Night With the Prostitute From Marseilles,” a song not as risqué as that title would lead you to believe, was part of a charitable compilation last year, and “Venice” was on a compilation given to subscribers to The Believer. Those are probably the two strongest songs, each reminiscent of early Magnetic Fields albums. The rest of the songs are enjoyable, although perhaps because this is a side project, they have an unfinished quality to them that sounds like it was purposeful: the last song, “No Dice” is just a repetition of a few simple hooks. “The Concubine,” with its accordion and trumpet, seems like a draft of a Beirut song left unfinished.

The two EPs here may be just a palette cleanser, or a chance for Condon to try out some new material after a hiatus. March of the Zapotec and Holland won’t get people as stirred up as Gulag Orkestar but they do suggest some interesting new directions.

By Tom Zimpleman

Other Reviews of Beirut

Gulag Orkestar

The Flying Club Cup

The Rip Tide

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View all articles by Tom Zimpleman

Find out more about Pompeii

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